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With Islamists in Control, Somalia's Capital Is, for Now, Quiet


The recent ousting of unpopular factional warlords by Islamists in the Somali capital Mogadishu has raised hope among residents that peace will finally prevail after more than 15 years of clan-based warfare. Signs of stability are returning to the city. But long-term stability is still far from certain.

For the past decade and a half, this once vibrant, coastal city on the Indian Ocean had been synonymous with violence, lawlessness, and decay.

Since the fall of the country's last functioning government in 1991, relentless factional fighting has taken an appalling toll on Mogadishu and its 1 1/2 million residents. Entire neighborhoods of crumbling, bullet-riddled buildings and houses stand as testimony to the ferocity of the violence and the countless ruined lives it has left behind.

But in recent weeks, there has been a noticeable change in the bleak landscape, which has brought much-needed relief to many Mogadishu residents, like Abdullahi Alasow, 61.

Alasow says the neighborhood where he lives was once off-limits for people who were not in the clan or the sub-clan of the warlord who controlled the area. He says the people felt hopeless, living in a city divided by checkpoints and patrolled by heavily armed militias who constantly battled with rival militias, stole goods, harassed and raped women and demanded endless bribes.

Pointing toward the crowds of strolling pedestrians and vehicles traveling freely through the streets, Alawsow says it is a sight that was unthinkable just two-and-a-half months ago.

Now only one well-armed militia patrols Mogadishu. It belongs to the leaders of Somalia's upstart Islamic movement, who forced the surrender of all secular, Mogadishu-based factional leaders after weeks of bloody confrontations.

Making good on their promise to restore law and order, the Islamists disbanded factional gunmen, absorbing some into their own militia and disarming others.

They also began setting up courts based on Islamic laws called sharia.

The establishment of a functioning court system seems to have won the Islamists a good deal of respect, even among secular Somalis who say they disapprove of religious clerics seizing power. Armed robberies and thefts have dropped dramatically in the city because perpetrators are being apprehended and punished.

Restoring security also appears to be having a positive effect on efforts to clean up the city's enormous sanitation problem.

On this day, nearly two dozen female volunteers are in the streets of central Mogadishu, hauling away mounds of uncollected garbage.

Digging into the trash pile with picks and shovels, the Somali women shout in Arabic, "God is Great!" for rescuing their city from 15 years of chaos. The group's supervisor, Halima Omar Farah, says it feels good to be doing something productive at last.

Farah says for years, she and other female volunteers had wanted to start a regular garbage collection program. But working in the streets, they would have been in danger of being killed by stray bullets, so they never tried.

But amid cautious optimism and newly found enthusiasm to try to repair the damage done by years of civil war, some Somalis say they have serious doubts about how long the peace can last.

Hardline leaders in the Islamic movement have hinted that they may soon ban certain activities, including dancing, playing music, and watching television. Somali women, who traditionally wear light, brightly colored fabrics, are being increasingly pressured to wear heavy, dark-colored abayas in public.

Being Muslims, most Somalis here say they welcome the idea of Islamic rule. But privately, many of them say they are worried that radicals within the Islamic courts are determined to turn Somalia into a fundamentalist theocracy.

Twenty-four year-old Mohadin Mohamed Abdi says the biggest worry for him is how Somalia's Christian neighbor, Ethiopia, may react if Islamic radicals begin to dictate Somalia's future.

Abdi says he has heard reports that Ethiopian troops are in Somalia to protect the interim government leaders, who do not want to negotiate with radical leaders in the courts. He says he has also heard rumors that Ethiopia's enemy, Eritrea, is sending Somali Islamists weapons to help them defeat Ethiopia.

Abdi says he fears that unless all the Islamic and interim government leaders can quickly find a way to work together, Mogadishu will find itself in the center of a new and far more destructive regional war.

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