NAIROBI, Kenya — Answering U.S. concerns that Somalia could become a new Al Qaeda stronghold, the leader of an Islamic movement that recently took control of the capital says the United Nations should send an investigative team to his country to ensure that no terrorists can transit it or hide there.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed appealed to the U.S.-organized contact group on Somalia, which was meeting for the first time Thursday in New York, to help disarm militias and stabilize the country.
Militias of the Islamic Courts Union, or ICU, last week drove out a group of warlords who had controlled Mogadishu, the capital, for 15 years.
Ahmed said in a letter to the contact group dated June 14 that Somalis had been subjected to terrorism for years and steadfastly opposed it.
American officials have expressed concern that Islamic leaders in Mogadishu are sheltering three Al Qaeda suspects believed to be responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2002 bombing of a hotel outside Mombasa, Kenya.
"Some of our leaders' families had the unfortunate experiences of loved ones being kidnapped, tortured and murdered at the hands of warlords and criminal groups during the last decade. We feel the pain of all people who had to face the tyranny of terrorists and organized criminals," Ahmed said in the letter. "Our commitment in this regard is steadfast." He invited a U.N. team to come to Somalia to monitor the situation.
Somalia's infrastructure has been shattered by clan warfare since the ousting of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991. With no central government, police or national army, the country disintegrated into various fiefdoms.
The ICU, a fragmented, clan-based alliance, has emerged as the key political force in the capital and is extending its control to the south and north of Mogadishu. Its militias took the strategic town of Jawhar, north of Mogadishu, on Wednesday, and Thursday advanced on Beledweyne, about 150 miles northeast of Baidoa, the seat of Somalia's weak transitional government, making the government base vulnerable.
The government has international support but no control of the country and has only a small security force. It lacks the power to make a move to the capital.
The U.S.-organized contact group on Somalia has been widely criticized in Africa for leaving out key players who have been working for more than two years on the latest attempt to restore a central government. The contact group involves only one African country, Tanzania, along with Britain, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the European Union. The United Nations and African Union have been invited to participate as observers.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized the United States for reportedly supporting Somalian warlords who pledged to round up suspected terrorists.
"I would not have supported the warlords," he said.
Annan welcomed the chance for stability in Somalia, but said it was unclear whether the Islamic Courts Union could restore order while respecting human rights.
"I have heard the reports that it's Al Qaeda and it's going to be a rerun," he said. "I have no evidence to support that. But what I can say is that the people have been fed up with the warlords and probably had helped the other side defeat the warlords, just to get their liberty back."
A statement issued by the contact group after its meeting affirmed support for the transitional government and urged dialogue between it and the Islamic Courts Union.
Ahmed's letter spelled out plans to reach a peace deal that would allow the transitional government to move to Mogadishu "as soon as possible." He said the ICU would set up a panel to negotiate peace with the regime.
Detailing plans to stabilize the capital, Ahmed said his group would organize the myriad militias there into a public safety force until a city and regional police force could be established. It promised an orderly administration of the capital and the region.
Ahmed called for international assistance to demobilize militias and deploy them in rebuilding the city's ruined infrastructure.
Some Mogadishu businessmen and political figures fear the rising strength of the ICU. Mogadishu Mayor Mohamed Hassan Ali, appointed by the transitional government to initiate talks with the ICU, warned that the group could grow too powerful and radical unless the international community acted swiftly. He said the West had a window of perhaps two months to influence Somalia's future.
Ali said that without strong international support for a peace process, emergency aid and rebuilding the country, the Islamists might be tempted to turn to extremists in the Arab world for financial support.
Despite the conciliatory tone in his letter, Ahmed appears to have taken contradictory positions in recent days. A day before the ICU seized Jawhar, he was quoted by journalists as ruling out attack on Jawhar or Baidoa.
The next day he was addressing a crowded stadium in Jawhar, warning residents that anyone who did not abide by Islamic law, or Sharia, would face the consequences.
Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.