Some Somalis Welcome Islamic Militia Victory

For a Mogadishu port worker, an Islamic group's takeover of most of southern Somalia means he can haul cargo without fear of rampaging militiamen. At the other end of the economic scale, a Coke executive is just as eager to grasp a chance at normalcy in a country that has known little but violence for more than a decade.

The Islamic militia's victory this month over the warlords who controlled Somalia's capital for 15 years has brought together clerics interested in enforcing Islamic law, secular business people looking to reach international markets and civic leaders anxious for an end to chaos.

But no one can say for sure what will come next.

In Mogadishu, supporters of the Islamic Courts Union, the umbrella group behind the militia, reject comparisons with the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic militia that united Afghanistan and gave refuge to Usama bin Laden. The union's leaders deny U.S. accusations that some members have been harboring Al Qaeda suspects.

Instead, they describe a popular uprising against the warlords, who had divided the capital. When the warlords began fighting again, the people called on the Islamic courts, which had for years provided the only semblance of law and order in Somalia, supporters said.

"There was no other option," said Khadija Ali, a Somali-American doctoral student in conflict resolution at George Mason University who spends part of the year in Somalia.

CountryWatch: Somalia

The Islamic militiamen's rapid advance across most of southern Somalia surprised even them, said Ali, who has been advising the courts union on international relations.

"These guys were not prepared for this change, they did not have a plan, so it is overwhelming," she said. "They don't have much experience internationally, so they don't know what the West expects them to do."

For the most part, Somalis have welcomed the elimination of roadblocks manned by drug-addled teens who extorted money on warlords' orders and robbed, raped and killed with impunity.

Elmer Mahmoud Mohammed, a 52-year-old worker at El-Maan port, said he was thrilled that the warlords and their militiamen were gone.

"It is much better, it is quiet, there is no war," he said, standing on the beach where almost all of Somalia's imports are brought ashore by small barges and more than 10,000 laborers.

At a new $7 million Coca-Cola bottling plant, acting general manager Mohammed Hassan Awale said the end of the warlord era was good for business.

"Before we had gunmen accompanying our distributors, now no guns are needed," he said. "If there is peace, there is opportunity for work, for business and people will have money to buy Coke."

The chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, has said the group does not intend to form a government.

"The final solution is with the Somali people, they are the ones who are responsible for the future," he said. On Wednesday, he sent delegates to Arab League-sponsored talks with the U.N.-backed transitional government based in Baidoa, 155 miles northwest from Mogadishu.

Many Somalis expect little from the Arab League initiative because their weak transitional government and the Islamic leaders have taken sharply opposing positions.

Somalia's transitional president has claimed the courts union is backed by international extremists, echoing U.S. accusations some of its leaders are linked to Al Qaeda.

"We have to make concessions for the common good of Somalia," Ahmed told The Associated Press. But he said his group will not accept government plans to welcome foreign peacekeepers.

However, there are many fault lines in Somali society.

The dominant clans in the Islamic Courts Union are the Abgal and Ayr; they have fought before and many fear they will again. Powerful business people compete across and within clan lines for resources and markets.

Many Somali clerics disagree on the proper interpretation of Islam. And there is also a wide gulf between the elite with foreign passports and the poor who are happy if they can manage a meal a day.

The courts union so far has appealed to almost all of them. But in a country where anarchy and violence have been the norm and many issues remain unresolved, most Somalis are waiting to see whether the country returns to civil war.

Ali said the international community must demand peace talks that include the transitional government, the courts union, the business community and civil society.

Now that the warlords have been defeated, all Somalis must work together to form a new government, she said.

The courts union "couldn't do anything without the business sector and civil society. Now the movement should have the face of all three sectors of society," she said. "If it is only the Islamic courts who have power, then the radicals will succeed."

Ali said she has been trying to recruit business people and civic leaders to join the courts union, but it's been difficult.

"I talked to some of my friends in civil society and they say, `I run a non-governmental organization, I don't want to get involved in politics,'" she said. "I say to them, `This isn't about politics, this is about survival, this is about saving Somalia.'"