Somali government encircled by hardline Islamists

After five days of assault by better-armed Al Shabab militiamen, pro-government fighters have apparently begun to retreat.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Somali Islamist leader and onetime president Sheikh Dahir Aweys has launched what appears to be a final assault on the fragile Somali transitional government.

Five days of fighting, including heavy shelling, have left dozens dead, almost certainly ending hopes for negotiations to potentially win over Sheikh Aweys's support for, and inclusion in, the moderate Islamist government of president Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. Both men had served in the short-lived Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) government of 2006, before it was removed by an Ethiopian military intervention.

The assault casts serious doubt over the survival of the Sharif government, just days after international donors pledged $213 million to support it. At present, forces loyal to Sharif control roughly 25 city blocks in Mogadishu, including the presidential palace. About 4,000 African Union peacekeeping troops also protect the Sharif government, the seaport, and the Mogadishu airport.

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"There is no doubt Aweys wants a military solution. He wants to dislodge Sharif," says Rashid Abdi, an expert on Somalia for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. "They're shelling the presidential palace and parts of the airport. This is looking like the final assault."

Witnesses say the fighting in Mogadishu is reminiscent of fighting in the early 1990s, in the scrum for power among warlords that followed the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1991. As many as 60 people have been killed and 250 injured. Five thousand fighters loyal to the hardline Islamist militia Al Shabab have been sent to Mogadishu from as far away as the southern port city of Kismayo. Fighters of another hardline Islamist group Hizbul Islam have joined the assault on Sharif's government as well.

Government forces in retreat

After five days of assault by better-armed Al Shabab fighters, pro-government fighters have apparently begun to retreat into areas under control of the African Union peacekeepers.

From the Villa Somalia, the presidential palace, Sheikh Sharif said on Monday that his government is still working toward a peaceful solution of the crisis, treating Aweys's military assault as nothing more than a hard bargaining position.

"We tell the Somali people that the government is making efforts to stop the fighting and work for the interest of the people, but unfortunately people who have made a career of war and do not want a government are wreaking havoc in the country," Sharif told reporters on Monday. "The government is committed to holding free elections and to avoid taking power by the gun. The reason they [opposition] are fighting us is to overthrow our government and to prevent the creation of an effective government."

Hours after the press conference, the presidential palace itself was shelled.

Why hardliners reject the current government

Hardline Islamists say they reject the Sharif government, despite the fact that Sharif won overwhelming support from Somali clans and traditional leaders during a UN-sponsored election held in Djibouti on Jan. 31.

Sharif's credentials as a former Islamist commander during the Islamist government of 2006 were thought to have given him the best chance of buying Somalia enough time to restore peace, open up humanitarian corridors for aid delivery, and allow for peaceful elections at a later time. Sharif was applauded both for reaching out to fellow Islamists – and having parliament make Islamic law the basis for Somalia's legal system – as well as to Western donor nations eager to see Somalia's nearly 19 years of anarchy brought to an end.

Sharif even welcomed back Aweys, the former head of the UIC, hoping the two could resolve their differences by negotiation. That appears to have failed.

Donor nations wary of getting involved

International assistance for the Sharif government is limited, in part by design. Based on the disastrous US-led UN peacekeeping mission of the early 1990s – culminating in the frenzied street fighting depicted in the book "Black Hawk Down" – donor nations passed the most recent Somali peacekeeping mission on to the African Union in 2006. Yet even the African-led peacekeeping mission has been divisive and potentially destabilizing, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon argued last month.

Now, the question is how will this African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force, composed of Burundians and Ugandans, will hold up against a full Al Shabab assault.

"I don't think that if pushed, AMISOM will go the extra mile to protect Sharif," says Rashid Abdi, of Crisis Group.

Sharif's best hope is an internal solution, most experts agree, by winning over enough Islamist militias to his side, including the popular but poorly armed traditional Islamist group Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama'a.

In Nairobi, Ahlu Sunna's political spokesman, Khaliph Mahamud Abdi, says his group has been talking with the Sharif government but will only join Sharif's forces if he promises to stop trying to cooperate with all foreign Islamic ideologies, especially the hardline Saudi-influenced ideology of Al Shabab, but instead to eliminate them.

Ahlu Sunna claims to control a broad swath of territory north of Mogadishu, including much of the Galcayo and Gedo regions. But while he says, "We have the people and we have the truth," he warns darkly, "They (Al Shabab) have the money and the organization."

"We are supposed to meet Sharif, and if he is willing to join us we will give him all the land we control and give him our forces, too," says Mr. Abdi, the Ahlu Sunna spokesman.

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