Somalia's transitional government on the verge of collapse

Four more ministers quit on Thursday, making 38 in nine days.

Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) began life without a home – conducting business in a Kenyan sports center.

Since returning to battle-scarred Somalia in February, it rapidly found itself without a country to govern. By early June, Islamist militias seized the capital, Mogadishu, and took control of wide swaths of central and southern Somalia.

Now, the TFG is facing complete collapse after 38 ministers and assistant ministers have quit in the past nine days.

"What we need is the prime minister to have a clear policy to deal with moderates in the Islamic courts. As a government we have to have our principles and a strategy to talk with them," says Ibrahim Isaac Yerow, sipping a spiced cup of coffee outside the former grain warehouse where Parliament sits in the dusty provincial town of Baidoa. "We don't have that at the moment."

Before resigning Wednesday, Mr. Yerow was the assistant minister of national property. Four more ministers quit Thursday.

The emergence of the Union of Islamic Courts – now the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia – as a political force in Somalia sent shockwaves through Western governments earlier this year, raising fears that they could turn this country into a haven for Al Qaeda.

They took control of Mogadishu in June, ousting a coalition of warlords who allegedly received backing from the US.

Since then the TFG has seen its influence limited to the city of Baidoa, about 150 miles northwest of Mogadishu.

Deadlines for peace talks in Sudan have come and gone during the past month, with both sides blaming the other for sabotaging negotiations.

Ethiopian troops reportedly arrived here to bolster government defenses as Islamic militias moved to within 40 miles of Baidoa, although both sides now appear to have pulled back from all-out war.

It has been a turbulent week in Baidoa.

Last Friday, Abdallah Isaaq Deerow, minister for constitutional and federal affairs, was shot dead as he left a mosque, prompting a security crackdown in the town.

Two days later prime minister Ali Mohamed Gedi narrowly survived a vote of no-confidence that erupted into a fist fight between members of Parliament.

Meanwhile, the Islamists have consolidated their hold. On Tuesday they took control of more than 50 battlewagons from clan-based militia leaders and opened a new Islamic court some 370 miles north of their Mogadishu stronghold.

This week another round of peace talks failed to materialize.

David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia, says the delay in restarting talks means the government is running out of options.

"Everyday, the TFG gets weaker and as it gets weaker its bargaining position gets weaker, too," he said by telephone from Washington.

He says its only hope may be that the Islamists would split between extremists – such as Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, cited by the US as a terrorist – and moderates in the movement.

"The TFG has to hang on and survive and hope there is an opening, but at the moment it doesn't look good for them," Mr. Shinn says.

Mohamed Abdi Hayir, minister of information, says his government has no fear that the Islamists are going to take Baidoa or that Mr. Gedi's administration will implode.

"There is no political crisis," he insists, pointing out that only 16 full ministers out of 42 have resigned. "We are working in a democratic way. People are free to leave the government and the prime minister can replace them as he chooses."

But if even six more full ministers resign – something observers say could be imminent – the TFG would likely crumble.

A group of TFG members, including the Parliament's speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden and President Abdullahi Yusuf, said Thursday that they are willing to go to Sudan for peace talks with the Islamists. This contradicts Gedi's rejection of talks, and could further isolate the prime minister.

Meanwhile, the traffic outside Mr. Hayir's office grinds to halt as pickup trucks loaded with AK-47-toting militiamen speed past. They are followed by a "technical" – a pick-up truck with an oversized anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back – before two top-of-the-line SUVs with tinted windows cruise by. That is how the speaker of Parliament travels around Baidoa.

The government has yet to make much of a difference to many ordinary people, says Ibrahim Mohamed Ali, an unemployed electrician.

And, like many here, Mr. Ali worries that the TFG's presence in Baidoa will soon make the town a target of Islamist militias.

"The town is the base of the government and so we always know that they want this place," he says of the Islamic courts. "They have all stopped talking about the peace talks which makes us worry that they may try to take it by force."

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