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NAIROBI, Kenya, May 25, 2006 – A surge in the power of Islamic fundamentalist warlords in Somalia is raising fears that the Horn of Africa nation could follow the path of Taliban Afghanistan into the hands of al-Qaeda, despite Western efforts to stop it.

Similarities with pre-9/11 Afghanistan abound: strict Islamic courts, public executions, strong anti-Western sentiment, and a failed central government. As in Afghanistan, fundamentalists are winning public support by promising a chaos-weary public that they will impose order.

Wary of the threat from so-called failed states, the United States has boosted its presence in the Horn of Africa. The Pentagon placed a military task force in Djibouti, just north of Somalia.

The Bush administration has avoided direct action in Somalia - perhaps because of the failures of the last intervention in the early 1990s, including the deaths of 18 servicemen in a 1993 battle made famous by the book and film Black Hawk Down.

But U.S. efforts to influence Somalia indirectly through proxies are now stirring debate and angst even among secular-minded Somalis.

"I believe in the idea of fighting the terrorists, because terrorism has no room in Islam, the religion of peace," said Osmail Mo'alin Ahmed, a teacher in Mogadishu, where frequent battles are erupting between secular militias and those allied with Islamic extremism. "But the U.S. should not place such a responsibility with ruthless warlords."

Musse Sudi Yalahow, a secular warlord and commerce minister in Somalia's near-powerless central government, said Somalia was critical ground in the war on terror and that was why he joined an antiterror alliance.

"Somalia must not be another Afghanistan or a transit point for terrorist attacks in neighboring countries," he said. Fighting between his Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism and the Islamic fundamentalists, known as the Islamic Court Union, has left more than 220 people dead since March in two major battles for control of Mogadishu.

Yalahow declined to answer when asked if he had received U.S. financial support, but he had broadly asked for it.

"I call upon the U.S. government and the international community to support our alliance's bid to hand over the foreign terrorists linked to the al-Qaeda terror network who are being sheltered in Mogadishu," Yalahow told the Associated Press. "One of our main aims is to seize one of Osama bin Laden's aides," a man Yalahow said was in Mogadishu.

U.S. officials refuse to confirm or deny financing the alliance, instead only broadly confirming contacts with many groups.

"We certainly have active efforts working with the international community and working across a spectrum of Somalis to make sure that Somalia isn't a safe haven for terrorism," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We have a real interest in counterterrorism efforts in Somalia."

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said recently that three al-Qaeda leaders indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania are being sheltered by Islamic leaders in Mogadishu.

The same al-Qaeda cell is believed responsible for the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya that killed 15 people and a simultaneous failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991, when clan warlords overthrew the government and divided the country into fiefdoms. The ensuing humanitarian crisis led President George H.W. Bush to order troops there in 1992.

The United Nations, which left Somalia in 1995, recently helped Somalian leaders meet in neighboring Kenya and form a government.

The transitional government includes members of the secular alliance. But other members of the government, which is based in Baidoa, 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu, have close ties to extremists.

Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center based in St. Paul, Minn., said the U.S. government needed to fully support the interim government, instead of individual warlords, or risk losing the goodwill most Somalis still have toward the United States.

"The current U.S. policy toward Somalia is creating more instability, more confusion and more backlash," he said. "It creates a sympathy and turns the Somali people into sympathizers for al-Qaeda."

Source: AP, May 25, 2006


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