JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — After 13 years of war, anarchy and no real central authority in Somalia, the country's main warlords, clan chiefs and community leaders signed a peace accord Thursday to set up a parliament and pave the way for a new government.
The 42 Somalian leaders signed the agreement in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, after more than a dozen failed attempts to reach a deal.
The accord may be the most significant step toward peace in Somalia since 1991, when the former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in a coup. When warlords failed to agree on a leader to replace him, the East African country was ripped apart by clan warfare. A million people died in the conflict, many through war-related famine.
The result, the Nation newspaper in Nairobi recently wrote, was that "the state called Somalia has practically disappeared from the world map."
Somalia occupies a dark place in the American psyche, not only because of accusations that Al Qaeda militants have found sanctuary there and because of an infamous 1993 raid by U.S. forces. During the disastrous attack on Somalian warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, two U.S. helicopters were shot down and 18 American soldiers were killed, a clash that formed the basis of the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."
Kenyan officials who helped broker the peace talks were reported as saying a new Somalian government could be working in a month. Under the agreement, clan leaders will select a 275-member parliament. The parliament will then choose a president who will appoint a prime minister to form a government.
In July, Abdiqassim Salad Hassan, leader of the nation's transitional government, walked out of the talks. But he returned recently, boosting the peace effort.
"We honestly hope that with this positive spirit we will be able to bury the long-standing differences that prevailed among the various sections of our society," he said at the signing ceremony in Nairobi, the South African Press Assn. reported.
"We have been given a golden opportunity by our neighbors and the international community to help ourselves. We should not lose it," said Asha Haji Ilmi, a community leader who was a signatory to the deal, according to the United Nations' Integrated Regional Information Networks.
Across Africa, from Sierra Leone and Liberia to Congo and Sudan, there have been moves toward peace in recent years, a process that some see as part of the aftermath of the Cold War in which the superpowers used Africa as an arena for their rivalry.
President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have telephoned government and rebel leaders in oil-rich Sudan to urge them to reach a final agreement. There has been significant progress: a deal on wealth-sharing late last year and recent progress on the status of three contested regions.
But doubts have arisen about Sudan's negotiations. On Thursday, the southern-based rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army angrily condemned government authorities who have been accused of bombing civilians in a bid to wipe out a separate rebel group in Darfur, western Sudan. Nearly 100,000 people have fled Darfur into neighboring Chad. The talks were recently adjourned until mid-February to allow the government's top negotiator to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Some rebel members interpreted this as a sign that the government was stalling.
In Somalia, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni led the international peace effort. As recently as two weeks ago, there was little optimism that the talks would produce a breakthrough. At the time, Museveni described the conflict as "slow genocide."
"A whole generation will soon be wiped out in Somalia," he warned.
A report by the United Nations Development Program last week graphically exposed how difficult life was for ordinary citizens who lack a central government and reliable services and face a war-ravaged infrastructure.
The socioeconomic survey, the first in two decades, found that 43% of Somalis live in dire poverty, surviving on less than $1 a day, and that nearly half the workforce is jobless. Only 17% of children go to primary school, and many enter the workforce at a young age to help their families.
The country's roads are in ruins, and few Somalis can afford healthcare. One region, Somaliland, opted for independence in 1991; another, Puntland, adopted self-rule in 1998.
The latest peace effort, launched in November 2002, has been marked by fistfights and tussles between delegates.
In a recent article, the East African Standard in Nairobi cataloged the problems that began on the first day of talks, when 300 delegates were expected and 1,000 turned up, spawning struggles in which one delegate suffered a broken arm.