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A new reality in Somalia

The current has shifted again in the capital, and backers of the defeated Islamists are adrift.

January 02, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — Their leaders slipped out of this capital under cover of darkness. Their plum jobs are gone. Their former offices were the first looted in a spasm of vandalism last week.

On Monday, these mid-level officials and fighters of Somalia's now-defunct Islamic Courts Union got a renewed offer of amnesty from Somalian Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi, who also set a three-day deadline for residents of Mogadishu to turn in their guns.

But for the Islamists left behind in Somalia's long-troubled capital, the ordeal was not over. While top Islamic officials escaped south toward Kenya last week, thousands of employees, fighters and other Islamic courts supporters remained trapped in Mogadishu, struggling to comprehend the new reality.

Once part of the city's elite, many of the Islamist militias' backers have gone into hiding, fearful of retribution or worried that enemies might finger them as Islamic courts collaborators to newly arrived Somalian soldiers or Ethiopian troops allied with the 2-year-old transitional government -- or the warlord-led clan militias reasserting control in the city.

Weary Mogadishu residents Monday tried to return to normality after a week of turmoil and a three-day Eid al-Adha holiday. Shops and offices reopened. People ventured out on the streets.

Only a few soldiers could be seen patrolling the congested roads or guarding government buildings. Ethiopian troops seen in public generally drew large crowds of Somalian onlookers, who stood in groups, observing the foreign soldiers from afar.

Most of the city was quickly adapting to the fall of the Islamists, with residents resuming activities once discouraged. Cinemas reopened. Children played soccer again on the beach. Vendors of khat, a leafy stimulant, resumed daily deliveries in the marketplace.

But ongoing and onetime supporters of the Islamic courts remained largely in the background. Some still defended the courts and predicted a resurgence of the once-powerful alliance of Islamic leaders. However, others, former backers, insisted that they had been misled and exploited by an organization that fell victim to infighting and greed.

"It was a black day for Somalia," said one mid-level courts official, referring to Thursday, when Islamist fighters abandoned Mogadishu to advancing troops from Ethiopia and Somalia's transitional government.

"I'm still not sure what happened," he said, afraid to have his name or former position revealed.

The courts official said the courts in recent weeks had begun to split into two factions, one that wanted to pursue negotiations with the weak transitional government and another that was pushing for an attack on Baidoa, the temporary seat of the government. The latter group won out, only to see the courts fighters routed by Somalian forces and more than 4,000 Ethiopian troops.

Nevertheless, the courts official said he had had no inkling Wednesday that the movement to which he had devoted his life would collapse the next day. Co-workers phoned him that evening with rumors that his bosses had already fled. It wasn't until he heard the radio the next morning that he realized the courts had disintegrated.

"I was just an employee," he said. "They didn't invite us to go with them."

Now he's scrambling to find another job to support his children and turning to his clan for protection. So far, he hasn't been threatened, but he fears that it's only a matter of time.

"Right now, everyone is focused on the presence of Ethiopians," he said. "That's taking the attention off the Islamic courts."

Afrah Adan Gagale, 27, a former Islamist fighter, said the courts' leadership was corrupted by power and its sudden success.

The courts seized Mogadishu in June after a surprising victory over U.S.-backed warlords, bringing a degree of stability to a country that in effect had been without a government since 1991.

"Their ambition was high, but they had no plan," Gagale said.

He blamed the defeat of the courts militias on conflicting orders from superior officers, who first called for an attack and then a retreat. Many courts supporters accused top security officer Yusuf Mohammed Siad of mishandling the standoff.

It was Siad who issued a seven-day ultimatum for Ethiopian troops to leave the country and later publicly invited Islamic militants from around the world to come and fight in Somalia. Such rhetoric pushed Ethiopia to attack the Islamists on Christmas Eve.

"We could have stood up to the Ethiopians, but we were told to retreat," he said. "It was a betrayal." He said the courts collapsed before paying fighters their $200 monthly salary.

Jamila Abdi Abdullahi, 21, is the mother of two small children and the wife of an Islamist militia commander. She and her husband were adherents of one of the courts' most hard-line factions, known as Shabab. She first worked as a nurse, and last week picked up a gun to join fighters near the Ethiopian border.

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