Mogadishu's unfamiliar calm

Islamist control of the city worries Western nations, but Somalis welcome the quiet.

Ir-Togt gun bazaar takes its name from the sound of AK-47 assault rifles being fired into the air as buyers test the merchandise.

But today its streets are quiet.

"This is an American gun – an M16. And there, those are all Russian," says Ali Mohamed, smiling to reveal a mouth filled with metal teeth. He has sold rifles and ammunition to all sides in the anarchy of Mogadishu ever since the collapse of President Siad Barre's brutal regime in 1991.

Things have never been so quiet, he says. Two weeks ago AK-47s sold for $550 as fresh fighting consumed the city. This week, he cannot move them for $350.

"Before, there were always two or three groups that I could sell to. Now there is just the Islamic courts and we are worried that they will bring peace here and put us out of business," he says.

A sense of calm has descended on the rubble-filled capital of Somalia since a coalition of Islamists, promoting a strict adherence to sharia law, announced their militias had taken control of the city last Monday.

Their victory ended the 15-year rule of the warlords – a motley bunch of armed businessmen, gangsters, and militia leaders.

The two sides had fought a series of bloody battles since February, when the warlords organized themselves into the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism.

They were accused of receiving covert US support and in turn accused the Islamists of sheltering Al Qaeda suspects.

Whatever the truth, the victory of the Islamists sent shock waves through Western capitals and drawn compari sons with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Such comparisons are difficult to pin on Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, chairman of the Union of Islamic Courts. Speaking at his ramshackle headquarters, he says the courts' mission was simply to pacify Mogadishu. "We have to know first what people want. The last 16 years there was civil war and people are very poor," he says as gently as he can in the harsh, consonant-heavy Somali tongue. "Our only priority is to bring peace. Anything else will come later."

But the media-savvy comments do not sit comfortably alongside the actions of the courts.

Last month, a 16-year-old boy was empowered by the courts to publicly stab to death the man who murdered his father. Dozens of cinemas have been shut down for allegedly showing lewd movies.

Sheikh Ahmed dismisses allegations that his courts are sheltering Al Qaeda suspects.

"That is a claim brought by the warlords only so they can get money. I don't know of any [Al Qaeda fighters] anywhere," he says.

The Islamic courts were set up in the mid-1990s by businessmen keen to bring a degree of law and order to the city.

According to a report published last month by the United Nation's Somalia Monitoring Group, the Islamic courts are able to generate huge revenues in the form of donations from their members' interests in the country's lucrative telecoms and remittance industries.

The report gives further details of roadblocks mounted by the courts to extort money. One is described as collecting more than $350,000 per year from donkey carts and trucks.

The result is a military machine that has emerged as a real threat to the transitional government, says the report.

The US State Department has long feared that Somalia – with no central security apparatus and where visitors don't even need a visa – could become a safe haven for Al Qaeda.

David Shinn, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and former ambassador to Ethiopia, says the US was right to be concerned about Al Qaeda, but that these Islamists may not seek to harbor anti-Western terrorists.

"My guess is that the vast majority of people in [the US government] are very concerned about the sharia courts in a very negative way, probably excessively so, as there is a tendency to take all Islamic groups as hostile to US interests," he said by telephone from Washington.

Suleiman Baldo, Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, says the moderate Islamists have been weakened, and the radicals emboldened, by the allegations of US support for warlords.

Who will emerge the stronger, he added, remains to be seen.

"We will have to see what happens, but my expectation is that in order for the courts to consolidate their position, they will want to compromise and to be inclusive rather than pursue the path of radicalization," he says.

Among the more hard-line elements of the courts is Sheikh Mohamed Siyad. "We are Muslims and must work at implementing Koranic law – democracy will not work," he says.

Islamist leaders entered talks with the transitional government last week. But hopes of a deal were dashed at the weekend as the Islamists broke off contact in protest at government plans to invite international peacekeepers into Somalia.

It leaves a transitional government in control of little more than a town, while the Islamists have the capital and a large and growing swath of Somalia.

Meanwhile, the US has set up what it calls a Somalia Contact Group to devise strategy. Its first meeting is in New York Thursday, and it is seen by many as a tacit admission that its previous policy of supporting the warlords was not working.

None of this seems to matter to the residents of Mogadishu, who have been able to move freely around the city for the first time in years. For many here that is enough to suggest the Islamists are the good guys.

"We don't believe they are like the Taliban," says Ahmed Mohamed Wasuge, who owns a hardware shop. "At the moment the sharia courts are working for us and have brought peace and security, which all the communities of Mogadishu welcome."

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