One day after the secular president of Somalia's semi-autonomous Puntland region declared that the area would be ruled according to Islamic law, officials there say the move is an effort to avert civil strife between supporters of secular rule and supporters of Islamic sharia.
Puntland President Addeh Museh's decree on Monday to rule by Islamic sharia law surprised many people in the Horn of African region, who expected the secular leader to fiercely resist the Mogadishu-based Islamists' ambitions to unite the entire country under sharia.
Just eight days ago, troops in Puntland were said to be preparing for a major clash, after they failed to stop Islamist forces from capturing the town of Bandiradley, 70 kilometers from the Puntland town of Galkaayo. In that battle, Puntland troops fought alongside forces loyal to a secular factional leader, who is allied with neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia's internationally recognized-but-virtually powerless interim government.
Puntland, which declared itself an autonomous state within Somalia in 1998, has a constitution based on sharia. But the region has generally functioned under a secular penal system.
Following the presidential decree, some Western observers speculated that Museh, expecting an Islamist push into Puntland, decided to enforce sharia so that he could pre-empt the Islamists's agenda and avoid a military confrontation.
But an advisor to President Museh, Abdi Abdul Shakur Mire, tells VOA that the president's decision was based on his desire to avoid alienating Islamists in Puntland, who have been expressing growing sympathy with the Islamist movement in Mogadishu.
"We are worried about inside Puntland because some people, they want sharia law. Some, they do not want sharia law," said Mire. "The president and Islamists in Puntland, they discuss how to stop civil war inside Puntland."
The Islamist movement took over the capital Mogadishu in June and has rapidly expanded throughout southern and central Somalia, threatening the authority of the two year-old, secular interim government.
Puntland's decision to implement sharia is expected to further isolate the government, which has no army of its own and has been unable to move from the town of Baidoa, 250 kilometers northwest of the capital.
The Islamists say their goal is to enforce Islamic law and restore peace in a country torn apart by more than 15 years of factional wars. But the United States, among other countries, accuse several top leaders of the Islamist movement of having ties to Muslim extremist groups and turning Somalia into a full-fledged training ground for anti-Western terrorists.