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Factional Violence Fuels Anti-American Resentment in Somalia

In recent months, Mogadishu, Somalia has become a deadly battleground between militias loyal to Islamic courts and a newly formed anti-terror coalition that is believed to have the support of the United States. The violence is renewing anti-American sentiment in the Somali capital.

Last Thursday, a reporter asked a spokesman for the State Department, Sean McCormack, if the United States was funding and supporting a coalition of Mogadishu-based factional leaders who recently formed a group called the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism.

"We are working with individual members of the transitional government to try to create a better situation in Somalia," he answered. "Our other operating principle is to work with responsible individuals and certainly members of the transitional government in fighting terror."

McCormack provided no details. But Somalis say that answer was enough to confirm their suspicions that, as part of its global war on terror, the United States is giving active support to some of the most powerful factional leaders and their business allies in the Somali capital.

At least four ministers in Somalia's transitional government are factional leaders, who are members of the new anti-terror alliance. The group refuses to say whether it is receiving American help. But its members say they have the same objective as the United States, namely to curb the growing influence of Islamic extremism in Somalia and to keep potential terrorists from establishing a safe haven there.

Since the alliance was formed three months ago, its secular fighters have fought pitched battles with militias belonging to Mogadishu's Islamic courts. Hospital workers there say more than 100 people, many of them civilians, have been killed in clashes so far.

The first Islamic court was set up in Mogadishu in 1994, to establish a semblance of law and order after Somalia descended into anarchy three years earlier.

But there are now as many as 11 Islamic courts operating in the capital and some are believed to be harboring Muslim extremists, including members of the al-Qaida terrorist organization.

Mogadishu-based journalist Mohammed Amiin Sheik Adow says few Somalis support Muslim extremism and many are in favor of adopting ways to stop militants from establishing a firm foothold in the country.

But Adow says Somalis do not want factional leaders heading up that fight. It was warring clan leaders and their militias, who left Somalia in chaotic ruin after the fall of Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991. Adow says Somalis are fed up with them and many have been turning to Islamic courts, seeking protection from the warlords.

"The Islamic clerics are [considered] better than the warlords because they set up Islamic Shariah [law] courts in Mogadishu, which at least can do something about security," he noted.

Some Somalis complain that some members of the anti-terror alliance are already using their access to U.S. officials in a bid to destroy rivals.

A Mogadishu-based businessman tells VOA about an incident earlier this year, in which a powerful alliance member tried to convince visiting American officials that the businessman was a potential terrorist.

The businessman, Abukar Omar Adan, says his dispute with alliance member Bashir Raghe Shirar began over a road that connects Mogadishu to Somalia's El-Ma'an port, the busiest port in the country. Both men claimed ownership of the road.

Adan says Shirar tried to have him arrested by telling the Americans that he was an active member of al-Qaida. Adan, a devout Muslim, says he supports the Islamic courts but not terrorism.

U.S. officials have declined to discuss specific details about the United States' efforts to re-engage Somalia after its disastrous military intervention there in the early 1990s.

But Somalis warn that supporting factional leaders could bear a heavy price. Islamic courts are portraying the anti-terror alliance as a proxy army of the United States to fight Islam. And that growing perception, they say, is helping to strengthen, not curb, Islamic extremism in Mogadishu and elsewhere in Somalia.

Somalis say the priority for the United States right now should not be on capturing terrorists, but on re-establishing a functioning government and helping re-build the country's long-broken infrastructure as quickly as possible.