Recent indications from Somalia's Ethiopia-backed interim government that it is prepared to negotiate an end to a 15-month Islamist-led insurgency have raised hopes for a cease-fire that could pave the way for peace talks. But as VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from Mogadishu, the insurgency is being waged by two Islamist groups motivated by different ideas, making prospects for peace in Somalia uncertain at best.
The spokesman for the Islamic Courts Union insurgents in Somalia, Abdirahim Isse Adow, says it is the leadership of the Islamic Courts Union, known as the ICU, that has the authority to order a cease-fire.
Adow, who spoke to VOA by telephone from an undisclosed location, says it is pointless to talk about a pause in the fighting while the country he says is still under occupation by Ethiopia. But he does not rule out the possibility of a cease-fire, if Ethiopia agrees to meet a key ICU demand and fully withdraws its troops from Somalia.
This week in Nairobi, a top advisor to Islamist leader Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed told VOA that his group is seeking direct talks with Ethiopia to find a way toward a solution. That statement followed last month's announcement by the new prime minister of Somalia's Ethiopia-backed government that it was prepared to hold peace talks with any and all opposition groups.
The most powerful opposition group is the Eritrea-based umbrella organization called the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, headed by the Islamic Courts Union leader Sheik Ahmed.
He and other ICU leaders fled to Eritrea after the Islamist movement was ousted from power in December 2006 in an Ethiopia-led military campaign. They have been leading much of the insurgency in Somalia ever since.
The softening stance of the ICU leaders and the Somali government offers some hope to ordinary Somalis, especially to the residents of Mogadishu, who have borne the brunt of the violence for the past 15 months.
The spokesman for the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, Ugandan Army Major Barigye Ba-Hoku, says Islamist insurgents have been using guerrilla tactics borrowed from the insurgency in Iraq.
"There are assassinations. There are roadside bombs. They hit and run police stations. They attack government soldiers. They attack anywhere there is government," said Ba-Hoku.
But, while the Islamist insurgents may share the same short-term goal of defeating Ethiopia and bringing down the interim government, extensive interviews with more than a dozen people reveal the insurgency is actually being waged by two distinct Islamist groups - fervent nationalists loyal to the Islamic Courts Union on one side, and religious zealots belonging to the home-grown, ultra-radical Shabab group on the other.
The Shabab, founded four years ago by a Somali militant trained by al-Qaida in Afghanistan, functioned as the military wing of the Islamic courts. It was largely disbanded after the Islamic Courts Union was routed, but Somalis say it has been re-organized with the backing of Islamic jihadist groups and supporters in the Middle East and elsewhere.
In recent months, Shabab leaders have said the group's ultimate goal is to help Muslims worldwide create a unified Islamic state.
In contrast, ICU fighters are largely perceived as fighting for the Somali people. Residents say the ICU insurgents have far more popular support, and receive generous funding from the local business community, members of the Somali diaspora, and ordinary people fed up with a government they overwhelmingly view as being corrupt and uncaring about their plight.
Adow, the spokesman of the ICU insurgents, acknowledges that the Shabab has been sharply critical of the courts for being too secular and has distanced itself from the movement.
The spokesman says efforts are under way to reach an understanding between the ICU and the Shabab. He says he hopes something can be done to prevent this disagreement from turning into a conflict later on.
Fearing reprisals, Mogadishu residents declined to speak on the record about Shabab's activities. But the picture that emerges is that of a group carrying out a war, not just against Ethiopian troops and the interim government, but also against other perceived enemies. Residents suspect the Shabab of being behind recent killings and of spying.
Last month, two gunmen, posing as students, shot and killed a respected religious teacher in Mogadishu. Many residents believe that Shabab ordered the assassination because the imam criticized the group's militant ideology.
They also fear Shabab is running a well-organized intelligence operation in Mogadishu and elsewhere, spying on ordinary citizens.
Scores of people have been killed, accused of being government informants or sympathizers.
A young Somali student, who declined to be identified, says everyone is tired of the Ethiopians and the government, but they are terrified of the Shabab.
The student says it is impossible to go anywhere or do anything without the danger of Shabab members suspecting you of doing something wrong against them.