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Islamists Invited to Somali Reconciliation Talks

The foreign affairs secretary for Somalia's ousted Islamic Courts Union has confirmed to VOA that he has received an invitation from the country's western-backed transitional government to attend peace talks next month in Mogadishu. But as VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, the ICU leader says such talks are not possible while Ethiopian troops are still in Somalia.

Speaking to VOA from the Gulf state of Qatar, Islamic Courts Union Foreign Affairs Secretary Ibrahim Hassan Addow says the chairman of the Somali reconciliation committee, Ali Mahdi, extended the invitation to him by telephone last week.

"Ali Mahdi called me a few days ago," Addow said. "The problem is there has not been any discussion between the ICU and those who are saying they are in charge of reconciliation. There has not been any contact at all."

Inviting Addow to the long-delayed reconciliation conference is a striking turn-around for government leaders, who had insisted the talks would be strictly clan-based and rejected holding talks with any political entities, especially the Islamic Courts Union.

Many Somalis in the capital, Mogadishu, believe interim leaders would not have made such a conciliatory gesture without intense pressure from the government's biggest financial backer, the United States.

Six months ago, neighboring Ethiopia, with U.S. support, helped Somalia's secular transitional government take power in Mogadishu from the Islamic Courts Union. The Islamic Courts enjoyed popular support but, in the view of the West, was becoming increasingly radicalized.

To boost popular support for the weak transitional government and to end a violent insurgency in the capital, the United States and other western nations urged Somalia's new leaders to quickly organize a broad-based reconciliation conference, which included all Somalis willing to rebuild the war-devastated country peacefully.

The interim government had first intended to hold the peace conference in April, but insecurity in Mogadishu forced a delay. The talks have since been delayed two more times and are now scheduled for mid-July.

But Addow says there can be no reconciliation process without the immediate withdrawal of thousands of Ethiopian troops, who are still in Somalia protecting the interim government.

"The ICU is ready to go to any negotiation table anywhere," Addow said. "The only problem now is Somalia is under occupation and the TFG [transitional federal government] is not ruling Somalia. Ethiopia is the one that is running the show. And all those opposing the Ethiopian occupation cannot express their views politically. Somalia is not a free country right now, so it is amazing that some people are saying there will be a reconciliation in Mogadishu. We cannot attend any conference there."

The Islamic Courts Union leader tells VOA that he has been told the reconciliation committee chairman, Ali Mahdi, is preparing to travel to Eritrea to hold direct talks with Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the head of the Islamic courts' moderate Executive Council, and some former members of the Somali parliament who are opposing the interim government.