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Somalia's Islamic Leaders Invite International Observers to Conduct Fact-Finding Mission


Islamic leaders in Mogadishu have invited international observers to Somalia to conduct a fact-finding mission about the possible presence of terrorists in the Horn of African country. The proposal appears to be an effort to dispel concerns that the Supreme Islamic Council, which seized control of Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia last month, may be harboring al-Qaida operatives.

An e-mail message sent to journalists and signed by the spokesman for the Islamic council, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, said the council would welcome an international fact-finding mission. In the message, he denies his group has links to terrorism, and says such allegations are an attempt to tarnish the group's reputation.

The offer to host a fact-finding mission comes in the wake of widespread concerns that an Islamic state in Somalia could become a haven for terrorists.

The United States believes the leader of the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia, a radical cleric named Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, and his supporters inside the council may be protecting at least three terrorists, including those responsible for the 1997 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Aweys, who is on a U.S. terrorism list, has denied having any association with al-Qaida, and says he is not a terrorist, but a devout follower of Islam.

On Thursday, the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia held talks with Arab, African and European diplomats in Mogadishu to assess the security of the country.

But that same day, the council's decision to impose the death penalty on Somalis, who fail to attend prayers has raised international concerns that hard-line Islamists, determined to turn Somalia into a fundamentalist theocracy, have further consolidated power in recent days, and are sidelining moderate members.

Michael Weinstein, a U.S.-based analyst on Somalia, says the Islamists are working on a strategy to stabilize the country.

"The dual track policy of having Ahmed be somewhat conciliatory and Aweys go down the hard-line is a split between the domestic social experiment of the Islamization of Somalia and the need for a stable environment," he said. "Tactics are consistent with each other, with the overriding aim to create an Islamic state in Somalia."

The Islamic council is striving to be recognized by the international community, and Friday's statement may be seen as a move towards greater political transparency.

They have also welcomed the return of aid agencies to resume work in areas under their control.

The internationally backed interim government of Somalia, based in Baidoa, is to meet for power sharing talks with the Supreme Islamic Council of Courts in Khartoum on the July 15.

The two sides last met on June 22, when the Islamists and the interim government agreed to formally recognize each other.

The Islamic Council of Somalia has held power in Mogadishu since militias loyal to its leaders defeated an alliance of warlords, after years of running street battles in the Somali capital.