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Somalia Conference Opens With High Expectations

ISTANBUL - Somalia needs the backing of other countries to overcome its more than two decades of instability, leaders said Thursday at a meeting in Turkey. Representatives from 54 countries gathered in Istanbul to help Somalia look to the future.

Addressing the opening of the two-day Istanbul conference, Somalia's prime minister, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, outlined a new vision for his country and called for the international community to look at Somalia in a new light.

"Somalia is more than hungry faces in the news, pirates or extremists. It's a diverse, rich land with an historical pedigree. I can foresee a day when Somalia has an active, vibrant economy buoyed by modern infrastructure and by highways," he said.

Somalia has not had an effective central government since the 1991 ouster of President Mohamed Siad Barre. Since then, Somalis have endured 21 years of war and lawlessness, as warlords and militia groups competed for power. The fragile Transitional Federal Government, created in 2004, has exerted little authority, in part because of corruption and infighting.

Business leaders, civic society groups and political representatives from both Somalia and other countries are discussing ways to rebuild the country, focusing on reconstruction, energy and water.

But delegate Abdirtahaman Abdiqani, a Somali businessman, emphasizes that security still remains key to redevelopment.

"No one can make a business. No one can make other things if the political environment is not good," he said.

The Istanbul gathering comes as government forces, supported by the African Union and anti-Islamist militia, continue to fight the militant group al-Shabab. The insurgent group still controls parts of Somalia. But Prime Minister Ali says pro-government forces are making significant progress against the group.

"We have gained control of the capital city, Mogadishu, and large swathes of land of the previous ungovernable southern and central regions in nine months. The Shabab element will not survive too long. Their reckless tactics have sapped them of support," he said.

A Turkish diplomatic source says one of the key items on the agenda is the creation of an international fund to pay for training and arming Somali security forces.

The second day of the meeting will focus on political issues, in particular preparing for the end of the mandate of Somalia's transitional government this August.

The transitional government is under pressure from its Western backers to stabilize the areas of the country under its control and enact political reforms that will allow for parliamentary elections and the writing of a new constitution.

Western nations have threatened to not extend the government's mandate, which was renewed last year to give the government a chance to capitalize on the gains against al-Shabab.

Somali delegate Ibrahim Mahadale says the political road map is key to Somalia's future.

"The priority is how to finish the road map before August 20. They have two months. I hope they can finish," he said.

Mr. Ali says his government is now making progress with an agreement on the size of the future parliament and guaranteeing women's representation. It is hoped the Istanbul meeting will further expedite the process.