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Al-Shabab Militants Enforce Laws Alien to Somali Culture

In Somalia, militant Islamists have begun enforcing new laws in the areas they control that are challenging the views of many traditionally moderate Muslims in the country.

The leader of al-Shabab militants in Somalia's Banadir region, which includes the capital Mogadishu, says all women living in towns and districts under al-Shabab control must now cover themselves completely or face severe punishment.

Ali Mohamud Hussein says al-Shabab will not tolerate anyone who disobeys the order.

Hussein says in the Koran, Allah orders all women to be covered from head-to-toe and that is why the law is being strictly enforced.

Traditional Somali clothing for women consist of light, colorful fabrics that cover the head and are wrapped loosely around the body. But al-Shabab says the only acceptable clothing now is the black Islamic dresses known as abayas worn by women in countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Al-Shabab is an al-Qaida-linked group that has been leading a bloody insurgency against Somalia's U.N.-backed government for more than two years. The group is a U.S. designated terrorist organization.

Al-Shabab militants control vast areas of southern Somalia, including several major districts in the capital Mogadishu, and have imposed laws based on the ultra-conservative Wahabist version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. Al-Shabab has stoned women accused of adultery and amputated limbs of suspected thieves.

But Somalis say the militants have begun interpreting Islamic laws to levels that even many Saudis may consider harsh.

Somali women in Mogadishu say al-Shabab has warned them that they would face punishment if they wore bras under their abayas because the group considers bras to be Western garments and un-Islamic. And in the port town of Marka, just south of Mogadishu, young al-Shabab fighters are reportedly rounding up men and women who have silver or gold teeth.

According to residents there, the people are taken to a man, who uses his bare hands or pliers to rip the metal teeth out of their mouths. The residents say the militants have told them that they consider such fancy dental implants to be against Islamic laws that call for Muslims to practice humility.

During the six-month rule of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006, al-Shabab and other Islamists gained popular support for imposing law and order in a country that had seen nothing but clan-based fighting and chaos since the fall of the country's last functioning government in 1991.

The Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December, 2006 drove al-Shabab underground and since then it has returned as a fearsome, far-more-radical guerrilla force. In recent months, al-Shabab has invited hundreds of foreign fighters to Somalia to help train new recruits and to topple the seven-month old government of President Sharif Sheik Ahmed.

President Sharif is a former Islamist opposition leader, who was elected president in January under a U.N.-sponsored deal that was condemned by al-Shabab and other Islamist groups.

But some Somali and Western analysts say al-Shabab's ties to foreign groups such as al-Qaida and its strict interpretations of Islam have begun alienating many ordinary Somalis. This, they say, may create an opportunity for President Sharif to implement much-needed reforms and build credibility with Somalis, who have questioned the legitimacy of the shaky government and his ability to lead it.