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Sufi Clerics in Somalia Support Unity Government

Sufi clerics in Somalia have declared their support for the new unity government led by a moderate Islamist. The declaration is raising the possibility of a wider sectarian war between adherents of the Sufi order and the powerful al-Shabab group in Somalia.

Sufi clerics, meeting this week in the Somali capital Mogadishu, say they fully support the newly-elected president of Somalia, moderate Islamist Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, and the efforts he is making to bring peace to the long-suffering country.

The clerics spoke Wednesday through a group of adherents of the Sufi order, who recently took up arms against al-Shabab in Somalia. The spokesman for Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a, Sheik Abduqadir Mohamed Soomow, says the international community should be thanked for sponsoring last year's peace talks in Djibouti. The talks paved the way for the Ethiopian troop withdrawal from Somalia in January and allowed Sheik Sharif's Islamist-led opposition group to join the government.

The cleric says Sufi scholars are calling on all Somalis to support the national unity government, which they hope will rule according to Islamic law and gain the support of the international community.

Sufism, a mystic form of Islam, has centuries old roots in Somalia but is considered heretical by conservative factions of Islam, especially Salafism and Wahhabism. Since the fall of Somalia's last functioning government in 1991, Salafism and Wahhabism, taught in many Saudi-run mosques and religious schools in Mogadishu and elsewhere, have gained a following among many young Somalis.

These Somalis make up the bulk of the al-Shabab, a militant group ideologically aligned with al-Qaida and vehemently opposed to Sheik Sharif's new western-backed government. Al-Shabab once functioned as the military wing of the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist movement led by Sheik Sharif before he and other leaders were ousted from power by Ethiopia in late 2006.

Al-Shabab grew powerful as an anti-Ethiopian insurgent group and took control of many parts of central and southern Somalia. In recent weeks, Sheik Sharif has reached out to the group, urging the leaders to reject extremism and to participate in rebuilding the country.

Somalia observer for the International Crisis Group, Rashid Abdi, says although al-Shabab gained many recruits as an anti-Ethiopian insurgent group, many Somalis are now rejecting its militant brand of Islam in favor of Sheik Sharif's call for reconciliation.

"It is undeniable that there is a great deal of opposition building against al-Shabab, especially from the traditional Muslim groups in Somalia," said Abdi. "There is a mobilization of various groupings of orthodox Sunni Muslims all over Somalia to form a broad front against al-Shabab."

Recently, Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a scored military victories over al-Shabab in the central Somali Galgadud region, prompting fears that a wider conflict could erupt between the two groups. Abdi says if Sheik Sharif fails to bring al-Shabab to the negotiating table, a war may have to be fought to determine which version of Islam Somalis will embrace.

"If these attempts at reconciliation collapse, then the prospect of a sectarian war happening in Somalia is real and that is definitely something to worry about," he said.

Sheik Sharif has never spoken out against the Salafist-Wahhabist branches of Islam. But he is believed to be sympathetic to Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a and its cause.