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Somalis Caught in Crossfire Between Warlords, Islamic Militias


For the past several months in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, militias loyal to secular factional leaders have been engaged in deadly battles with militias of the country's Islamic courts. Islamic court officials say the conflict is being waged to bring peace to a country devastated by factionalism. Factional leaders describe the conflict as an effort to fight terrorism and curb the growing influence of Islamic extremists in Somalia. But as VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from Mogadishu, both sides have another battle to win -- the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Somalis.

Another day of fighting has begun in the city of Mogadishu.

It is only mid-morning and casualties are arriving faster than the staff at the Madina Hospital can handle.

Inside the emergency wing, several wounded people, bleeding from the head, arms and legs, are waiting on gurneys - eyes closed in agony and moaning softly. Almost all of them are women.

The deputy administrator of the hospital, Ali Moalim, says everyone in the city is fed up with violence, but they are helpless to stop it. "They are killing students, women, all the people. Fighting without any result, killing each other - no one knows why they are killing each other," he said.

For an entire decade in the 1990s, Somalia was torn apart by a clan-based civil war, which killed untold thousands, plunged the country into anarchy, and divided the capital and the country into fiefdoms controlled by rival factional leaders.

Now, the Somali people are in the crossfire of another conflict, pitting a newly formed alliance of rival factional militias against the militias of Islamic law courts, which have been trying to fill the leadership vacuum in Somalia for the past several years.

The courts were set up years ago in the country as moderate Muslim, clan-based institutions, intended to restore security. But because of internal divisions, the courts wielded little power. Until recently.

The chairman of the Islamic courts, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, tells VOA that the courts are now supported by the majority of Somalis, who appreciate the work the courts have done in restoring law and order to many areas of the country. He says the courts have also built schools and run various charities to help ordinary Somalis.

Sheikh Sharif Ahmed says people are disgusted with Somali factional leaders, who have done nothing but destroy the country for the past 15 years. He says the Islamic courts are gaining popularity because they represent peace and a better way of life under Islam.

Factional leaders in the anti-terror alliance fighting the Islamic courts have a much different view. While they acknowledge that the militias have done little for the Somali people, they say they are now trying to save them from Islamic extremists, who have taken charge of the courts and are working to turn Somalia into a base for terrorism.

The United States says it shares the concern of the alliance and believes top officials of the Islamic courts may be harboring al-Qaida operatives and setting up terrorist training camps. The United States has not said whether it is supporting factional leaders in the alliance to combat terrorism.

But many Somalis here believe that alliance factional leaders are receiving large sums of money from Washington to fight a proxy war against the Islamic courts. And court officials are not hesitating to use that perception to recruit more followers.

During a speech last week at the recently built Peace Hotel in central Mogadishu, VOA listened as Sheikh Sharif Ahmed told a large audience of men and women that factional leaders and Americans were working together to discredit the Islamic courts and to attack the religion of Islam.

"You must do whatever you can, sell whatever you can, and join us in defending our religion, our country, which is under attack. We must stand together to deter this aggression," he said.

Despite Somali distaste for factional leaders and foreign intervention, it is not clear how many ordinary citizens actually support the Islamic courts. Many Somalis who criticize the United States for helping factional leaders also say privately that they believe the Islamic courts are receiving funding from neighbors and various Arab countries to spread Muslim extremism in Somalia.

Mogadishu-based journalist Mohammed Amin Sheikh Adow discounts concerns Somalis will be attracted by extremism of any form. He says during more than a decade of anarchy, extremism failed to take root in Somalia, not because of counter-terrorism efforts, but because the people themselves reject it. "There is an Islamic movement but I think it will be too difficult to set up an Islamic state in Somalia because people are not so loyal to their religion as they are to the clan," she said.

Back at the Madina Hospital, 21 year-old Zara Mahmoud is waiting nervously for the doctor to treat her wounded sister. Mahmoud says her sister was hit by a stray bullet that came into their house.

Mahmoud says she fears the fighting will result in nothing but more bloodshed because neither side is offering what the Somali people truly want. She says the only thing the people want is a government, not a government that the United States or al-Qaida want, but a government that does good things for the Somali people.