The Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militia that controls much of southern Somalia Thursday encircled Baidoa, one of the few towns held by Somalia's legitimate government.

The U.N.-backed government said the radical militia group harbors foreign fighters allied to Usama bin Laden, and wants to establish an Islamic fundamentalist state.

"Morale is very high and we are ready to fight," the government's military commander, Maj. Gen. Ismail Naji, said while watching training at the Manas military camp near Dinsor, one of the front lines. "The clock is ticking toward war."

The crackle of automatic gunfire echoed around him as recruits in crisp, sand-colored uniforms performed target practice and drilled on vintage artillery guns. Others waiting to undergo training stood in line in torn clothes and flip flops. All receive food in place of pay.

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In Baidoa, 30 miles to the northwest of the camp, checkpoints have been set up after two car bomb attacks. Heavily armed soldiers aboard pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns whizz through the squalid streets and past the scars of other battles that have left much of the city in ruins.

Known as the "City of Death," a title earned in 1992 when famine and war left thousands dying in the streets, it now serves as the government's capital. Parliament is held in a former grain silo and the city, with 70,000 people, lacks clean water or regular electricity.

"When this battle starts it will be a fight to the finish," General Mohamed Warsame said. Small skirmishes have broken out but there have been no major military encounters.

"I have come to fight Islamic extremists and Al Qaeda," one soldier says while nervously fingering the trigger of an AK-47 — the weapon of choice in this violent African nation once again sliding toward war. There are fears it could take the whole region with it, with traditional rivals in neighboring Eritrea and Ethiopia backing opposing sides in Somalia and weapons flowing in from several countries.

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Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into years of anarchy and civil war. The government was formed with the help of the U.N. in 2004 to serve as a transitional body to help the country emerge from war, but it has struggled to assert its authority.

Peace talks with the Islamic group have failed and diplomatic initiatives to get the rival sides back to the negotiating table have yet to bear fruit.

Jennifer Barnes, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, said Thursday the Islamic council was preventing "credible dialogue" between the two sides "through its continued military expansion and aggression" against the government.

Last month, a U.N. arms monitoring group said at least 10 countries were providing weapons, money and training to the rival sides.

Eritrea backs the Islamic group, while Ethiopia supports the government. On Tuesday, the Islamic group said it will attack the government base unless any Ethiopians in Somalia withdraw.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council approved plans to send peacekeepers to protect the government, despite strong opposition from Islamic group. It also authorized the partial lifting of an arms embargo to allow training and weapons for the government army.

The government insists it is holding out hope for peace, but on Tuesday the prime minister told The Associated Press that war was inevitable. He said government forces had prepared defensive positions.

His military officials believe around 4,000 hardened Islamic fighters are dug in on northern, southern and eastern fronts, 40 miles from Baidoa.

Land mines have been laid by Islamic fighters on the city's western outskirts, effectively surrounding the town, said deputy defense minister Salad Ali Jelle.

War would hit an already devastated country. One in five children die before the age of 5 from easily preventable diseases. Most Somalis die before they reach their 50th birthday.

The impoverished nation is struggling to recover from the worst flood season in East Africa in 50 years. At least 230 people have died from floods and related waterborne diseases since October in Kenya, Somalia, Rwanda and Ethiopia, according to the U.N.'s World Food Program.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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