Somali Islamic scholars have condemned Islamist insurgents for launching an attack on pro-government forces and African Union peacekeepers Tuesday in Mogadishu. The fighting is the heaviest of its kind since Ethiopian troops withdrew from Somalia last month.
The cleric representing moderate Islamic scholars, Sheik Bashir Ahmed Salad, criticized the Islamic Party, a newly-formed hard-line opposition faction, for starting two days of violence that killed and wounded scores of civilians.
The cleric said the fighting violated the religion of Islam by harming innocent people. He said those who launched the attack will be held accountable for the bloodshed.
The Islamic Party, an alliance of four opposition factions led by the Asmara-wing of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, took responsibility for the attack. The Islamic Party is an ally of Somalia's most militant Islamist fighting force, al-Shabab. Earlier this month, the Islamic scholars denounced al-Shabab for killing scores of aid workers and civilians in recent years.
Both al-Shabab and the Islamic Party have rejected the U.N.-backed unity government of moderate Islamist President Sharif Sheik Ahmed, who was elected by an expanded Somali parliament a month ago to help unify Somalis and bring stability to the country for the first time in 18 years.
While Islamic scholars and many ordinary citizens have cheered President Sharif's election, the Somali leader is facing the challenge of trying to balance the demands of his Islamist-supporter base, who want him to impose Islamic law in Somalia, and the demands of regional and western governments that want him to keep the unity government inclusive but secular.
President Sharif is also facing a dilemma on whether to support or reject the Islamic scholars' demand for the African Union to withdraw 3,500 peacekeeping troops from Somalia within the next four months. On Wednesday, Sheik Bashir Ahmed Salad again said it is imperative for the peacekeeping force to leave Somalia.
The scholars' hard-line stance against foreign peacekeepers and their demand for Islamic law in Somalia prompted at least one al-Shabab leader to question whether the militant group, listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, could maintain popular support if the African Union troops left.
In a surprise interview with reporters in Mogadishu, Mohamed Kofi, an al-Shabab spiritual leader close to one of the al-Qaida-trained founders of the group, said he supports the Islamic scholars and what they have asked of the Somali president.
Kofi said it is not right to oppose the Islamic scholars, whom he said have made good decisions and have the support of the Somali people.
Al-Shabab gained numerous recruits and won vast amounts of territory during its two year insurgency against Ethiopia and the government it protected. Since the departure of Ethiopian troops and the election of an Islamist leader to head the government, al-Shabab has focused its attacks on the African Union peacekeeping force known as AMISOM.
Somalis say it is likely that the Islamic scholars are hoping that the departure of AMISOM troops will drain popular support from al-Shabab and give President Sharif a chance to consolidate the government under moderate Islamist rule.