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Experts Discuss Challenges for Renewed Somali Engagement

Somalia's cabinet has voted to implement Islamic law across the country. Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed agreed late last month to introduce Sharia law as part of a truce negotiated by local Islamic elders between the government and an Islamist insurgent group. The measure will now go to parliament for approval. Here in Washington, the U.S Institute of Peace and The Center for Strategic and International Studies held discussions Tuesday on the topic "Somalia: Challenges for renewed engagement". Reporter Peter Clottey was there and has the details.

Tuesday's conference examined current developments in Somalia and the possibilities for greater U.S. and international engagement. Speakers at the conference included the United Nations Special Representative to Somalia, Ambassador Ahmedu Ould- Abdallah, The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Africa Subcommittee, Russ Feingold, and Acting US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Phil Carter, as well as various security experts, including Somalis.

Somalia has been without an effective government for at least 18 years after former President Mohammed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991 through a coup d'état, plunging the country into insecurity, with tribal leaders as well as Islamic hard-line insurgent groups taking over parts of the country.

Senator Feingold urged Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed's government to ensure and maintain peace. He promised to use his position and power to help generate funds to support the activities of the new Somali administration to stabilize the country. He also heaped praise on President Barack Obama's administration for taking special interest in the security situation in Somalia, which he said is connected to threats against U.S security.

"The threats to our national security continue to be very real, and we need to ensure that they are addressed in the strategy we develop. I am confident that President Obama and his administration are paying attention to these growing threats and the deepening crisis in Somalia. And I was pleased to learn that they are in fact now beginning a serious inter-agency policy review process," Feingold pointed out.

Senator Feingold said there was need for a concerted effort to help the Somali administration overcome the numerous challenges it faces soon after relocating to the capital, Mogadishu from neighboring Djibouti.

"We must all work together to ensure it continues to grow as a legitimate and inclusive government. Although it currently has a broad appeal, this unity government does have a limited window of opportunity to substantively demonstrate its commitment to these ideals. Unless it makes a difference in people's lives in terms of security and basic services such as protection and trash collection and job creation, this transitional government will quickly become irrelevant as had it many predecessors," he said.

U-N Special Representative to Somalia Ahmedu Ould-Abdallah was of the opinion that the Somalia conflict is not unique to Africa, which has always had its fair share of foreign influence. He urged both local and the international community's not to look at the situation as a case study, but to take a holistic approach to resolving the country's problems.

"Somalia is not a case study we are dealing with a human being. To me I see Somalia as a country in conflict like other African countries, Mozambique, Liberia, Sierra Leone but also like other European countries like former Yugoslavia or like Cambodia. So, I put the case of the situation in Somalia in a context," Ould-Abdallah noted.

Ambassador Ould-Abdallah said ordinary Somalis as well the leadership should find common ground in resolving the crisis. He urged opposition parties to join the unity government in rebuilding the country.

"The way out is for the nationals from that country to have enough capacity, strength, and wisdom to compromise to make a concession. The fight for winner takes all is not convincing and has failed in more and more conflict situations. So, I don't consider Somali as unique on earth I think it has its specialties and its specificities, but it is like any other Asian, African or European conflict," he said.

Islamic hard-line insurgent groups, including al-Shabaab, refuse to recognize President Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed's administration and vow to take over the country through violent means. Acting US Assistant Secretary of Phil Carter said the new administration faces the daunting task of overcoming a shaky security situation.

"Security remains Somalia's greatest challenge. And while recent progress in appointing a president, a prime minister, a cabinet is encouraging, clear challenges remain. Basic security is needed for political stability to take root and without political stability, security and humanitarian situation will remain dire and the blight of piracy off the coast of Somalia will continue," Carter pointed out.

Carter said the U.S administration, in conjunction with its international partners, is determined to help the African Union's mission to help restore peace and stability in Somalia.

"The United States will provide funding for the deployment of at least two additional AMISOM (African Union Peace Keeping Mission in Somalia) battalions to aid in this effort I addition to the four we are supporting. And we have publicly committed proving about five million dollars to support this establishment of the joint security force. We will not be alone in the effort, one of the issues we've discovered with regard to the contact group discussions is a wide range of interest among a bunch of different donors and countries to support this effort in terms of stability and security for the new government," he said

There was unanimous agreement across various forum discussions and presentations that international support is needed to help the new Somali administration in its rebuilding efforts to restore peace and stability.