Rival Islamist groups are said to be poised to begin another round of fighting in the Galgadud region of central Somalia. Witnesses say pro-government fighters are amassing on the outskirts of El Bur, a strategic town under the control of the militant al-Shabab.
Somali sources tell VOA that as many as 1,000 fighters loyal to an armed pro-government Sufi Muslim group called Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a are preparing to launch an attack on the town of El Bur.
The sources say Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a fighters have received reinforcement and arms from allies in the Galgadud region and elsewhere. In recent days, a large number of fighters loyal to an Islamist insurgent faction called Hisbul Islam have been spotted leaving the Somali capital Mogadishu, presumably to back up al-Shabab in El Bur.
In May, the rival Islamist groups fought to a stalemate several times in nearby Wabho and Mahas towns. Ahlu-Sunna claimed at the time that its forces had killed nearly two dozen al-Shabab fighters, including a foreigner. Last week, the warring sides again fought for control, with dozens of fighters killed on both sides.
Al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab and its ally Hisbul Islam say they are fighting against the presence of African peacekeepers in Somalia and the U.N.-backed government of Sharif Sheik Ahmed. The insurgents call the moderate Islamist cleric a traitor and a western stooge.
But the government has found a powerful new ally in Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a, a moderate religious group with a strong base in central Somalia. The group took up arms against al-Shabab in December after al-Shabab desecrated the graves of revered Sufi leaders.
Angered by al-Shabab's religious intolerance, Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a has pledged to roll back al-Shabab gains in Somalia and to support President Sharif's government.
Analysts say if al-Shabab loses control of El Bur, it could open up a corridor for pro-government forces to launch an attack on Jowhar, a key town that links Mogadishu in the south to the central region. Al-Shabab rebels seized Jowhar in May.
A Somali businessman, who requested anonymity for security reasons, tells VOA that al-Shabab did have significant popular support when it was fighting the Ethiopian occupation. But he says reports that hundreds of foreigners are among the ranks of the militant group have convinced many ordinary Somalis that al-Shabab is no longer fighting for them.
"They are hiding many things. They are advocating the country to be Somali for the Somalis. And now there are not Somalis only. They have other foreign people mixed with them. What do they want this place to be? That is the question many people are now asking," he said.
The businessman says what confuses Somalis is that President Sharif's government is also believed to be receiving huge amounts of foreign military support, especially from Ethiopia. Somalia is still not being run by Somalis, he says.