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Success of Islamist Courts in Somalia Raises Questions About Future of Shattered Nation

The emergence of a strong Islamic movement in Somalia has dramatically altered the politics of the country, severely weakening a transitional government that mediators had hoped would bring an end to years of lawlessness. The success of the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts has experts, diplomats and neighboring countries now wondering if Somalia could become an Islamic Republic.

By June of this year, the Islamic Courts in Somalia had taken complete control of the capital, Mogadishu, following a five month civil war against an alliance of militia leaders, who had received support from the United States.

Ken Menkhaus, a former senior adviser to the U.N. operation in Somalia, describes the Islamic courts movement, saying "It is today, by far and away, the strongest political and military movement in Somalia, and is politically on the ascendance and holds most of the cards."

Menkhaus says the courts have expanded their control throughout much of south central Somalia, and, in most cases, without a fight, negotiating instead with local clan leaders. "And now their control extends roughly from the Kenyan border in lower Juba, most of middle Juba, across much of Bai region and then up the Shebele River -- all of this is controlled by the Islamists. That leaves the autonomous state of Puntland beyond their reach, the secessionist state of Somaliland beyond their reach, and then (the) Geddo region and portions of Bai and Bakool regions in the hands of the transitional federal government," he says.

After 15 years of civil war, with no central functioning administration, two years of protracted negotiations led to the formation in 2004 of a transitional government.

Despite hopes that the new government would bring stability to Somalia, Ken Menkhaus says, most regional experts knew it was too narrow a coalition. Among other things, it excluded two of Mogadishu's most powerful clans.

The rapidly changing situation in Somalia has raised concerns for U.S. policy makers, who now fear the country is becoming a haven for terrorists.

Eunice Reddick is the director for East African Affairs at the U.S. State Department. "Several foreign al-Qaida operatives have taken refuge in Somalia, including some of the individuals (who) perpetrated the 1998 bombings of the two embassies in east Africa, as well as the 2002 attacks against an Israeli airliner and a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya. The U.S. government has called upon the leaders within the Islamic courts to support efforts to bring foreign terrorist operatives currently in Somalia to justice," she says.

But former U.N. official Ken Menkhaus, who now teaches at Davidson College in (the southern U.S. state of) North Carolina, disagrees with those who say al-Qaida is trying to gain a wide foothold in Somalia. "I don't think it is going to attract foreigners beyond those who are dabbling. It is a place to dabble. It's actually a very difficult place for anyone to operate, whether you are working for UNHCR or al-Qaida. It's very hard on the ground. It's very treacherous. There are better places to base yourself in East Africa than Somalia," he says.

Reddick of the U.S. State Department says the U.S. interest in Somalia extends beyond preventing terrorism. She says the U.S. is supporting Arab League-sponsored talks between the transitional government and the Islamists. It also continues to provide funding for humanitarian projects, and is working to promote regional stability.

But one of the complicating factors in achieving that is the role of neighboring Ethiopia, which strongly supports the transitional government, and is accused of sending troops to back it. Ethiopia's support has angered representatives of the Islamic Courts, and regional experts fear tensions over Ethiopia's role could lead to an all out war with the Islamists. Addis Ababa denies it has troops on Somali territory.

Africa expert and author Gerard Prunier says the Islamists are using the threat of war with Ethiopia as a kind of recruitment tool, because, he says, the support base of the courts - like the transitional government - does not represent a wide section of Somalia's deeply clan-divided population. He says what the Islamists want most of all is control, and portraying Ethiopia as a threat gives them support from many factions that would otherwise oppose them. "They want to govern the whole country. They want permanent confrontation with Ethiopia and no war. Keep everybody on the edge of their seats, but don't jump. Because it helps the mobilization, which increases their support, while an open war would bring only problems," he says.

Prunier believes that, while Somalia appears to be crumbling on the surface, it may yet be possible to find a workable solution to the nation's seemingly endless cycle of conflict. However, he says, that solution might be to allow Somalia to become an Islamic Republic. "I think if the internal dynamics of the Islamic courts are helped, channeled, manipulated in the right direction, you could end up with an Islamic Republic that you could live with," he says.

Prunier says that although the United States may bristle at such an idea in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he says the U.S. already has a number of friends that are essentially Islamic Republics, such as Pakistan - a key U.S. ally in the war against terror.