The United States Monday said it would have no contact with the new leader of Somalia's Islamic Courts movement, but it did not rule out the notion the group can still be a partner in restoring a functioning government there. The new courts leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, is on U.S. and international terrorism watch lists.
The State Department says U.S. officials will have absolutely no dealings with Sheikh Aweys, yet it is not foreclosing the possibility that the Islamic Courts movement can work with the international community on ending more than a decade of political chaos in Somalia.
The Islamic Courts movement, which took control of the Somali capital Mogadishu earlier this month, announced Sunday that Aweys had been named its new leader. He replaced Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who was seen by many as a moderate and had called for dialogue with the United States and other world powers.
Aweys headed a radical Muslim group in Somalia's Puntland region in the 1990's believed to have had links to al-Qaida, and he appears on both U.S. and United Nations terrorist watch lists.
Briefing reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Awey's presence on those lists makes him ineligible for dialogue with the United States. But he said the Islamic militia movement comprises a variety of clans and factions, and U.S. officials still don't have a clear picture of the balance of power within it, or the policy course it will take:
"There's a lot of shifting sands here in terms of the leadership and composition of this group," said Sean McCormack. "Again, I'm not trying to make excuses for somebody who's on the terrorist watch list. Certainly, of course, we're not going to work with someone like that, and of course we would be troubled if this is an indicator of the direction this group would go in. But again, let's see what the collective leadership of the group actually does."
Though the previous courts leader, Ahmed, had criticized the United States for supporting rival warlords, he sent an open letter to the U.S. and other governments disavowing terrorism and saying his group did not want to be considered an enemy.
Last week, the Islamic Courts and the U.N.-backed Somali transitional government met in Sudan under Arab League auspices and agreed to recognize each other and cease hostilities.
Spokesman McCormack said the test for the Islamic Courts movement will be whether it supports efforts to help build Somalia's transitional institutions, helps facilitate humanitarian relief in the war-torn country and fights terrorism.