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Islamist Militias Face Widespread Opposition in Somalia


When Islamic militias in Somalia seized the capital Mogadishu last month, many Somalis welcomed the Islamist's victory as the first step to possibly ending nearly 16 years of lawlessness. But as the leadership in Mogadishu presses forward with plans of establishing a fundamentalist theocracy, there are signs that conquering the country will be more difficult than capturing the capital.

Like millions of soccer fans all over the world, Fowzi Abdinur Mohammed cannot get enough of World Cup action.

On this day, he is once again glued to the television set.

Mohammed says he feels lucky to be living in Baidoa, where everyone is still free to watch and do whatever they wish.

The capital Mogadishu and several other towns along the way to the border with Ethiopia are said to be under the control of hard-line Islamists, who have imposed strict Islamic laws called Sharia. People living under Sharia are discouraged, if not banned, from participating in activities deemed "Western" because they are considered un-Islamic.

One such area is the Galgadud region in central Somalia. News reports say at least two people were killed late Tuesday when Islamic gunmen opened fire on scores of young demonstrators protesting a ban on viewing the World Cup.

"The difference between here and Mogadishu is quite big because the Islamic Courts in Mogadishu, they do not give the people free life and democracy - the right to choose," he said.

The vast majority of Somalis are Muslim and many consider themselves devout. But for centuries, Somalia's Islamic roots have been largely based on Sufism, a strain of Islam that stresses spiritualism and is more tolerant of other religions and lifestyles.

A member of a Sufi Muslim clerics' association in Baidoa, Sheikh Abdullahi Ali Adan, tells VOA that the radical Islamists in Mogadishu are not true representatives of Islam and few Somalis accept them as such.

The cleric says Islam is a religion of peace, equality, and fraternity, but the men who seized Mogadishu have twisted the meanings of the teachings in the Holy Koran to justify their desire to take power through violence and force.

In Baidoa's bustling open-air market, nearly everyone VOA spoke to expressed similar disapproval for the leadership in Mogadishu. But for many, their grievances against the leaders are clan-based.

Many Baidoa residents like Yusuf Moalim Abdullahi say the Islamists have no credibility here because many members of the courts are former factional leaders who belong to the Hawiye clan. As warlords, Abdullahi says the Hawiye men destroyed the lives of thousands of rival Digil and Mirifle clan members in Baidoa and other parts of southern Somalia.

Abdullahi says one of those former warlords is Yusuf Mohammed Siad, who grabbed vast amounts of land in the area in and around Merca after the fall of the last functioning government in 1991. Siad is believed to be a high-ranking militia commander in the Islamic Courts, now known as the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia.

Abdullahi says the land Siad took by force belongs to his Digil and Mirifle clan, who are the majority in the region around Baidoa. The shopkeeper says his clan will never accept the rule of a group, which he says is made up of thieves and murderers.

The United States and other western countries are also worried about the Islamic leadership in Mogadishu. They are concerned that radicals inside the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia are harboring al-Qaida operatives and will attempt to turn Somalia into a full-fledged haven for a host of other terrorists.

Since the Islamists' takeover of the capital, support for the country's Transitional Federal Government has grown steadily among western countries, the African Union, the United Nations, and Somalis who reject being ruled by the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia.

The interim government was cobbled together in neighboring Kenya 19 months ago and has been based in Baidoa for the past year because it has not had enough security to enter the capital.

Like members of the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia, many interim government leaders and parliament members are former factional leaders, who divided Somalia into clan-based fiefdoms and plunged the country into lawlessness for the past 15 years.

Despite questions about its ability to rule democratically, it is a government that has a balanced clan representation and is internationally recognized. Some residents here say they are increasingly convinced that supporting the government is their only option to counter the fundamentalist threat posed by radicals inside the council and groups like al-Qaida, who want to establish a firm presence in Somalia.

Another shopkeeper, who identifies herself only as Nurkiya, says the Islamic council and their followers may oppose deploying U.N. peacekeeping troops in Somalia. But the interim government and its supporters would welcome them with open arms.

Nurkiya says the presence of foreign troops would force moderate Islamic leaders to work with the interim government. She says once those leaders establish good relations with the government, they may be accepted by the majority of the people and the country can be peaceful again.

But the two sides remain far apart on a number of issues, including the deployment of foreign peacekeepers.

The interim government says it cannot bring stability to Somalia without the help of foreign troops to disarm factional militias. The hardliners in charge of the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia say it will declare a holy war if any foreign troop sets foot on Somali soil.

With such differences, some Somalis believe the prospect for peace in their country appears more remote than ever.