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Struggling Under Harsh Rule in Somalia
They didn't expect this to happen
MOGADISHU, Somalia - They have closed down makeshift cinemas showing World Cup soccer games. They have forcibly cut young men's hair if it is more than an inch long. Even before that, they banned a New Year's celebration on penalty of death.
Islamic militias have been a fact of life for several years amid the chaos of the Somalian capital. But after they took control of Mogadishu on June 6, the question has been whether they will consolidate a system of Taliban-style extremism here and extend it into the countryside.
Somalis aren't sure the clan-based nature of the Islamic Courts Union will permit that. While they and outside policy-makers debate the issue, Abdi Fatah Nur says he has had two run-ins with the militias.
One night this month, Nur said, he was one of about 100 men sitting in a cinema on Mussolini Street waiting to watch the World Cup match between Argentina and Ivory Coast when 10 militiamen arrived to shut it down. Nur said the 21-year-old cinema owner protested that watching soccer had not been banned. The militiamen left, but they came back an hour later.
'They turned off the electricity,' Nur said. 'All the people were shouting. Some wanted to run and were yelling, 'Open the door.' Some were yelling to the owner, 'We want the World Cup.' '
After the crowd fled, Nur said, the militiamen beat the owner to death in front of a nearby ice-cream parlor.
'They all beat him with the butts of their guns. Three used bayonets. Some were kicking him. One of them stood on his head.' Nur said he helped carry the body home.
Undeterred, Nur went to another cinema the next day to see Iran play Mexico. This one was raided too. Arrested along with dozens of others, he was beaten and taken to a police station, where his hair was hacked off. He was jailed for three days.
Similar accounts have surfaced since the Islamic Courts Union militias defeated the warlords who had controlled Mogadishu for 15 years. But signs of extremism had begun emerging earlier. On Dec. 31, 2004, militias declared that anyone caught celebrating could be put to death because New Year's is not an Islamic holiday. In November, militias in northern Mogadishu raided cinemas showing Indian and Western films.
In recent weeks, the then-chairman of the courts union, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, and other Islamic leaders have said they have nothing against people watching the World Cup. Ahmed has promised to secure Mogadishu, implement Sharia, or Islamic law, and negotiate with Somalia's transitional government, which despite international backing, has little power.
But all these promises have been thrown into doubt with Ahmed's replacement by Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, a more extreme figure accused by the U.S. of past links with Al Qaeda.
Despite an absence of guns on the street, security remains difficult. On Friday, a Swedish journalist was shot and killed by a gunman who came from behind and fired a single bullet, the Associated Press reported. Martin Adler, 47, was covering a crowd celebrating a tentative deal between the courts union and the transitional government.
The ICU, renamed the Conservative Council of Islamic Courts over the weekend, is so fragmented that few people in Mogadishu regard it as a viable administration. Like so much else in Somalia, the Islamic courts are based on clans. To avoid exacerbating conflicts among them, each court judges only members of its own clan. Two of the 15 courts interpret Sharia far more stringently than the others.
It remains to be seen who will ultimately prevail as leader of the courts. As former chairman of the loose alliance of Islamic courts, Ahmed was not a political leader in the conventional sense. He could not interfere in courts outside his own clan.
Abdurahman Osman, who is close to Ahmed and is a former advisor to Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi, head of the transitional government, said that unless the new power structure was balanced along clan lines, it risked falling apart.
He said Ahmed didn't control the militiamen who shut down cinemas, but that the movement must stop such excesses.
'It's young men, 21 years old with limited education and limited income,' Osman said. 'But if we don't cut off this malignancy, if we don't cut it off right away, it will spread. Because that idea is wrong. It just represents killing and hatred.'
The United States believes several Al Qaeda figures are hiding in Somalia and an Islamist regime would provide shelter to the group.
In a report last year, the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, discounted reports that as many as 17 terrorist training camps were operating in Somalia. The most surprising thing about the Al Qaeda presence in Somalia, it found, was its 'minute size.' Operatives probably number in tens, not hundreds, it said.
The report said fears centered on Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, who is believed to have ties to Al Qaeda. He reportedly trained in a terrorist camp in Afghanistan and is a protege of the new courts leader, Aweys.
But Ahmed, who helped found the courts after a 12-year-old boy at the school where he taught was kidnapped by a warlord's militia, denies any links to Al Qaeda and says he is strongly opposed to terrorism.
Khadija Ali, a member of a Mogadishu business family that helps fund the moderate wing of the courts union, said it was too early to judge what the Islamists would do.
'You hear people saying, 'What is their agenda?' I don't think they have one,' she said.
'They didn't expect this to happen,' she said, referring to the Islamists' victory over the warlords. 'For them, it's overwhelming. There is not an organized political agenda that everyone agreed' upon.
Despite such doubts, the Islamic courts militias are popular among many people here for their role in improving security. To Ali Hussein Maalin, a food importer who divides his time between Mogadishu and Kenya, the ICU is like strong medicine.
'When you are sick, really sick, you will try any kind of medicine. That's why we have the Islamic courts,' he said.
Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991, and the rule of the warlords had made a routine of terror and loss.
Two warlord militiamen invaded the home of Ibrahim Adan Mohammed in Mogadishu's Bermuda neighborhood one stifling night in August. They rammed a rifle butt in his chest and dragged away his 16-year-old daughter, Nurta, raping her through the night.
The next morning, she staggered home and collapsed, bruised, caked in blood, clothes torn and, according to Somalian society, her honor ruined. A few weeks later, she ran away, terrified the gunmen would come again.
They did. A couple of months later, they banged on the door at 3 a.m. They ordered Mohammed's wife, Zahra, to come with them. Mohammed, 53, held her back, but they shot him above both knees, shattering one femur. When she resisted, they killed her.
He lay by her body until dawn, when neighbors found them.
'There was no one I could turn to. I felt there was no justice, nothing,' Mohammed said, his lower lip trembling and voice breaking. Lying back to ease the pain in his right leg, which is wrapped in filthy bandages, he lifted a threadbare shirt to wipe his tears.
Businessmen such as Maalin and clan leaders first set up and funded the Islamic courts in the 1990s to help protect their businesses and cut violence, although poor neighborhoods remained vulnerable. Many supporters of the courts hope to see more severe punishments. Maalin applauds the execution of murderers 'so you can avoid another 200 people being killed.'
But Salad Adaan, a 16-year-old orphan who was shot in the eye two years ago in crossfire and shot in the leg by warlord militiamen four months ago, believes the Islamic militias will turn out to be no different from this country's previous tormentors.
'I was born in the warlord age,' he said. 'If the warlords are gone, the Islamic courts are just the same people wearing different shirts.'Source: Los Angeles Times