Uneasy political shift in Somalia

Government forces retook Mogadishu from Islamist militias Thursday, leaving a dangerous vacuum.

Somali government forces entered Mogadishu Thursday after a whirlwind advance against Islamist militias who were forced to retreat after sustained losses.

The city echoed with gunfire as clan-based militias returned to the streets, settling old scores and looting. Residents said they feared a return to 15 years of anarchy that ended with the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts, which took over just six months ago.

The quick victory over the Islamists, analysts warn, leaves a dangerous vacuum in a country that has only recently seen calm. Without a political strategy for winning the peace, they say, Somalia risks becoming a quagmire that sucks in neighboring countries. If the Ethiopians keep their word and withdraw quickly, radical elements within the courts – such as the young fighters of the Shabbab, led by Afghanistan-trained Aden Hashi Ayro – might run a guerrilla campaign, drawing in foreign fighters.

"The risks are that if Ethiopia and Somalia are unable to politically consolidate their military victory, then we are back at square one with the conditions that gave rise to the courts in the first place," says Matt Bryden, a consultant to the International Crisis Group.

The Union of Islamic Courts had managed to win crucial clan support as they moved across the country, but that appeared to evaporate in the face of Ethiopia's military dominance. Elders switched sides, hastening the demise of the Islamists.

Convoys of Islamists' pickups mounted with antiaircraft guns or heavy machine guns were seen leaving the city on Wednesday night and heading towards Kismayo, an Indian Ocean port still held by the Union of Islamic Courts. Government officials spent part of Thursday meeting elders near Mogadishu discussing the terms by which troops might enter the capital. In the afternoon, as the Monitor went to press, Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi had flown to a town near the capital as the government declared a state of emergency.

"Things here are very tense now," said Abdiaziz Adow, a Mogadishu shopkeeper, by telephone. "No one wants things to go back to the way things were, but we have already heard about people being shot and all the shops are closed."

Last June, a network of sharia courts seized control of the capital following months of fighting against a coalition of warlords, who received covert support from the United States.

The rise of the courts was lauded by residents who endured years of violence at the hands of the military strongmen. Among them, the warlords had carved the city into a network of personal fiefdoms riddled with roadblocks and no-go areas.

Gradually, the city took on an air of peace. The checkpoints were dismantled, the international airport was reopened, and teams of women were deployed to repair streets.

Militias loyal to the courts fanned out across the country. Mostly, they were welcomed by clan elders keen to see some sort of order restored.

Meanwhile, a weak transitional government – established with UN and international backing – found itself isolated and unable to command support outside its stronghold of Baidoa.

The growing power of the courts was greeted with concern in Ethiopia, which feared the rise of radical Islam on its doorstep, and the US, which accused the courts of harboring Al Qaeda terrorists. Ten days ago, as the courts moved to within 40 miles of the government seat, Ethiopia openly intervened.

As Ethiopian warplanes began bombing Islamist positions last weekend, the Islamic leadership said their forces were falling back to Mogadishu to begin preparing for a long guerrilla war.

But as Somali government forces and Ethiopian soldiers took control of Balad, the last town on the road to Mogadishu, the Islamists prepared to flee.

Before leaving the city, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who heads the courts' executive committee, told Al Jazeera television that his militias were leaving Mogadishu to avert bloodshed. "We have withdrawn our forces and there are no Islamic Court forces (there). It is the Somali people who are resisting," he said. "We left [the capital] to avert heavy bombing because Ethiopian forces are practicing genocide against the Somali people."

As they left, much of their weapons and fighters were handed over to clan leaders who took control of the airport and seaport.

The fall of Mogadishu came after a night of frantic telephone diplomacy. Islamist leaders spoke with government officials, saying they would be welcome in Mogadishu if they did not launch an attack.

At the same time, government officials were telephoning clan elders in the city, urging them to withdraw their support for the Union of Islamic Courts.

Abdirahman Dinari, a government spokesman, said popular support had melted away from the courts as they began to introduce a hard-line form of sharia law. He claimed the government was now in control of 95 percent of the country.

"The courts were not powerful. It was the international media who gave them false credibility," he said by phone from Baidoa. "It is the people of Mogadishu who are powerful. Now [the courts] have lost support, they have disappeared into thin air."

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