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Islamic Group Controlling Somali Capital Faces Authority Challenges


After months of fighting against an alliance of secular Somali factional leaders to seize Mogadishu, an organization called the Union of Islamic courts says it is now in control of the capital. The union is already facing major challenges to its authority, and Somalis are once again bracing for a new round of fighting.

It has been three days since the Islamic courts' militia pushed a self-styled, anti-terror coalition of factional leaders out of the city and declared victory.

But the African program director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, Suleiman Baldo, tells VOA that it would be premature to assume that the Union of Islamic courts is now fully in control.

"Now, it is the test of governing Mogadishu, the test of surviving clan politics," he said. "This is the reality of the place, and they have to show an ability to navigate the complexities. I think the issues of administration of Mogadishu and clan politics overlap, because to have a stable administration that is acceptable to all, they need to associate with all of the major clans and influential players in Mogadishu, and not to impose an administration of their own exclusively."

The clan based Union of Islamic courts was established more than a decade ago to try to restore law and order in a country torn apart by warlords and factionalism.

But experts on Somalia say the Islamic group's efforts to promote a conservative religious agenda at the expense of clan allegiance have bred resentment among some clan elders. Now, there are signs that the Union of Islamic courts is on a collision course with at least one of the country's powerful sub-clans.

On Tuesday, the influential Abgal sub-clan in northern Mogadishu held a large demonstration, vowing never to accept the authority of the Islamic courts.

Abgal leaders have appealed for clan unity in fighting the Islamic courts, and to defend the town of Jowhar, 90 kilometers north of the capital, where the defeated Mogadishu-based factional leaders are now said to be regrouping to launch a counter-attack.

Jowhar is a stronghold of Mohammed Dheere, one of the leaders of the 11-member, anti-terrorism alliance and an Abgal sub-clan member.

Meanwhile, a top Islamic courts official, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, has announced that he is stepping down as chairman. The cleric is an Abgal, prompting some in Mogadishu to speculate that pressure from clan elders may have played a role in Ahmed's decision to resign.

Ahmed was seen as a relative moderate in the courts' leadership, which includes Sheikh Hassen Dahir Aweys, a hard-line radical cleric accused of having ties to al-Qaida.

Suleiman Baldo at the International Crisis Group says he believes, if Aweys is chosen to replace Ahmed as expected, there is little chance that peace talks will ever be held with factional leaders, or with Somalia's transitional government in Baidoa.

The president of the transitional government, Abdullahi Yusuf, once spearheaded a successful campaign in the northern region of Puntland against al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, a radical Somali Islamist group headed by Aweys.