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Somali Parliament Approves Expansion Before Presidential Vote

Somalia's political leaders are meeting in neighboring Djibouti in an attempt to settle longstanding differences, elect a new president and expand parliament to include opposition factions. Sixteen candidates are in the race to succeed President Abdullahi Yusuf, who resigned after failing to unify a country that has been without an effective government since 1991.

Somalia's parliament overwhelmingly approved a measure to expand from 275 to 550 members. The vote was 211 in favor, six against with three abstentions.

The vote clears the way for including members of moderate Islamist opposition factions to participate in selecting a new president of the country's fragile transitional government. Even before the vote, the leader of the opposition Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed said he would seek the presidency.

He says "I accept to be your candidate for president, and I am ready to take that responsibility."

The transitional charter says lawmakers should choose a new president within 30 days of the previous leader's resignation. That deadline is Wednesday. But Sheikh Sharif's supporters immediately asked to extend the deadline to allow him time to campaign.

The opposition leader instantly became one of the frontrunners for the presidency, as he will control a large faction in the expanded parliament. Other prominent candidates include the Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, and General Mohamed Said Hirsi, known as General Morgan he was minister of defense under former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

In a VOA interview, General Morgan said Somalis want a modern government that respects Islam, but is not Islamic.

"It is a Muslim country. We are Muslims, but that is a religion we believe, and the system of government is different from the religion," he said. "The religion we believe, but the main thing is to solve our internal problems in a Somali way."

Morgan, who spent more than 20 years in the army, and is sometimes referred to as a warlord, says the next government must be open to all clans and groups. He says it should reach out to Eritrea-based factions that have rejected the reconciliation process, and even the extreme Islamist al-Shabab, widely viewed as a terrorist group with links to al-Qaida.

"I want to open the door to everybody, we Somalis know our culture, tradition, those people in Eritrea, those called Shabab, those called different names, but at the same time they are Somalis, I would like to accommodate them, and come up with a solution among Somalis, without foreign intervention," said Morgan.

A prompt and orderly presidential selection process would send strong signals to the international community that Somalia is on the road to stability, and possibly worthy of more support in the form of a U.N. peacekeeping mission. U.N. special representative for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah had urged Somali lawmakers to respect the Wednesday selection deadline.

Meeting that deadline would allow the new Somali president to join other African heads of state at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, beginning next Sunday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will also attend, and is expected to focus his attention on Somalia, which has been the world body's most vexing challenges.

But al-Shabab fighters were reported to be taking control of parts of Baidoa, the provisional seat of parliament, immediately following the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops that had held the town for the past two years. The extremists were said to have occupied the building parliament had used for its meetings.

Fighting in Somalia during the past two years has killed an estimated 16,000 people and fueled a surge in piracy in the strategic Gulf of Aden, off the Somali coast.