Islamist offensive ruins the West's plan for Somalia
Militant Islamists have the moderate government surrounded in Mogadishu. If they took over, it would be a devastating blow to US counter-terrorism and anti-piracy efforts in East Africa.
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The fighting marks a dramatic reversal for Aweys and Ahmed, who were allies in 2006 when Islamist militias took over Mogadishu. The septuagenarian Aweys, the henna-bearded father of the country's modern Islamist movement, plucked Ahmed, then a little-known schoolteacher, to be the moderate face of the new regime.Skip to next paragraph
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When a US-backed invasion by Somalia's archenemy Ethiopia ousted the Islamists six months later, Aweys fled into exile. Ahmed, to the hard-liners' disgust, formed an opposition group that reached out to Western officials.
Since he became president, Ahmed has tried to placate his rivals by agreeing to institute Islamic law, or sharia. Aweys' long-awaited return to Mogadishu last month raised hopes of reconciliation, but in a speech two days later he accused Ahmed of being a US-Ethiopian client and called the African Union force — the only thing standing between the government and the insurgents — "a bacteria" to be flushed out.
"We are not going to accept what the international community is forcing on us," Aweys said Friday. "We are going to make our own government."
In a country that's deeply suspicious of foreign intervention, analysts say, the United States and other Western nations underestimated how easily their support for Ahmed could taint the soft-spoken young president.
Experts said that about 100 government soldiers had defected in recent weeks, partly because army salaries hadn't been paid and partly because of fears that Ahmed would be toppled.
"The extremists see [Ahmed] as a sellout," Abdi said. "They call him 'the man of the American Islam.' He's not practicing the harsh brand of Islam they practice, so they want his blood."
Western officials also appeared to misjudge Aweys, who, despite more than two years in exile, landed in Mogadishu and seemed swiftly to unite disparate insurgent groups in a well-organized campaign that's sealed off the capital's three arterial roads.
Somalia has grabbed world attention in recent months with the surge in pirate attacks from its lawless shores. In one way, Abdi said, the pirates could have precipitated the current crisis: After countries pledged more than $200 million last month for security in Somalia, in part to fight piracy, the insurgents may have decided to strike before the government and the African Union got the money.
Western intelligence officials think that the insurgent groups — particularly Al Shabab, which has employed Al Qaeda-style roadside bombings and suicide attacks — are backed with money and arms from Arab countries and from Ethiopia's blood rival, Eritrea.
The top UN diplomat for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said Friday that 280 to 300 foreigners were fighting alongside the insurgents. Somali government officials say the foreigners come from countries such as Afghanistan and Chechnya and have trained local fighters in explosives and tactics.
(Special correspondent Ahmednor Mohamed contributed to this report from Mogadishu, Somalia.)