The rise of hardliners in Somalia's Islamist group is fueling regional and western concerns that a Taleban-style regime will be established and the country will become a breeding ground for terrorists. The group's top leader is Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who spoke to VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu in Mogadishu by telephone from his base in the Galgadud region of central Somalia.
It is rare for the 62-year-old Islamic leader to be seen in public or to grant interviews. But he said he felt it was important to talk to VOA so that he could set the record straight about his vision for Somalia's future.
Aweys says Somalia is not Afghanistan and the only thing the two countries have in common is the religion of Islam. He continues, "If you ask me what Somalia is and will be in the future, it is Islamic. But that is where the similarity between Somalia and Afghanistan ends, and the United States has no right to ask or know what we will or will not do."
The cleric would not clarify how the country under his rule would differ from that of Afghanistan's former Taleban rulers, who imposed the harshest form of Islamic laws, called sharia, and gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden.
But questions about Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys' extremist leanings and ties to terrorist groups have been raised since the early 1990s, when he headed a Somali Islamic militia called al-Itihaad al-Islamiya.
Aweys maintains the group was only concerned with fighting Ethiopian attempts to establish a political and military foothold in Somalia. But western terrorism experts say the al-Itihaad group was made up of hardcore militants, determined to turn the country into a fundamentalist Islamic state.
Aweys is on a U.S. list of people linked to terrorism. But he denies he is a terrorist and says his only purpose for spreading Islamic rule is to help Somalia recover from 15 years of lawlessness and factional divisions.
"What Somalis want is to unite under Islamic law," said Aweys. He says unlike what the West thinks about different interpretations of Sharia, there is only one set of Islamic laws, written in the holy Koran. Aweys continues, "The West thinks that is bringing terrorism to Somalia. I tell you that we are installing Islamic laws to promote peace and we will not stop until all of Somalia is under sharia."
The Islamic leader blames neighboring Ethiopia as being the biggest obstacle to what he says is the country's desire to unite under sharia. The Islamists have accused Ethiopia of sending troops to protect Somalia's secular, but weak, transitional government in the town of Baidoa.
But interim-government leaders counter that Islamists are accepting arms and troops from Ethiopia's arch enemy, Eritrea.
Ethiopia says Eritrea is trying to use the Islamists to start a proxy war against Ethiopia in Somalia.
Eritrea denies the charges. Aweys says, as far as he is aware, his group has never accepted weapons from Eritrea nor has that country sent troops into Somalia.
"The only troops we have in Somalia are Ethiopians and it is the Ethiopians who made up this story about Eritrea as an excuse to invade Somalia," he said.
Aweys says that because the Ethiopians are still in Somalia, Islamists and government leaders are unable to hold a meaningful dialogue to form a unity government.
The cleric says the only way the two sides can ever sit together for talks is if the Ethiopians pull out of Somalia for good.
Ethiopia rejects the Islamist charges, but the largely Christian country says it reserves the right to defend its borders from Islamist aggression.
The United States and the United Nations have urged all sides to re-engage in peace talks and have called for Ethiopia and Eritrea to stay out of Somalia.