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A mixed group of Somalis in exile gathers

A conference in Eritrea draws opposition figures of all stripes. The meeting rivals one just ended in Mogadishu.

September 07, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

ASMARA, ERITREA — In the latest challenge to Somalia's weak transitional government, an eclectic, but potentially powerful, alliance of Islamic sheiks, former warlords and ousted lawmakers is regrouping in this quaint Horn of Africa capital.

For days, opposition leaders along with other exiled Somalis from across the world have been pouring into Asmara for what is being billed as a rival reconciliation conference to one in Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, that began in July and ended last week. That long-awaited event excluded most of the government's harshest critics, including clans believed to be behind an emerging insurgency.

Experts say the dueling conferences show how far apart Somalia's factions remain after 16 years of civil warfare. Somalia's transitional government, backed by Ethiopian troops, seized control of Mogadishu in December but has not been able to quell attacks by Islamic extremists.

The Asmara talks mark the reemergence of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union, the alliance of religious leaders that was chased out of Mogadishu last year.

U.S. and Somalian government officials, who accused the group of having links to terrorists, previously described the religious alliance as defunct. Yet among the approximately 300 delegates at Thursday's opening ceremony were two of the group's top leaders: Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, whom the U.S. alleges has had links to Al Qaeda, and Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a former teacher who is believed to be more moderate. Both men have kept low profiles since they fled Mogadishu, living in exile in various countries around the region.

Ahmed, speaking to delegates, denied that the Islamic Courts Union ever harbored terrorists and said such "fabrications" were used by Ethiopia, with U.S. support, to justify the occupation of Somalia, its longtime rival. He said he hoped the conference would "establish a political organization that liberates the country and ends the violence."

Aweys did not take the podium.

The Islamic Courts Union is one of four groups that have come together for the so-called Congress for the Liberation and Reconstitution of Somalia.

Organizers of the weeklong event said that by its end, they planned to elect leaders, approve a charter and announce a strategy for retaking power and driving out the Ethiopian troops that remain in Somalia at the invitation of the transitional government.

Other delegates include former parliament Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, who was replaced after he opposed the use of Ethiopian troops, and U.S. Marine-turned-warlord Hussein Mohammed Aidid, who broke ties with the government after losing power in a Cabinet reshuffle.

Rounding out the conference are scores of former members of parliament, representatives from Somalian civil-society groups and academics and businessmen now living in Europe, Canada and the U.S.

Conference leaders said they hoped to resolve the standoff with the transitional government through peaceful means and a political dialogue, but that they would not rule out the use of force, particularly against Ethiopian troops.

"We will use any means to defend our country," said delegate Mohammed Suldan Ibrahim.

Analysts said it remained to be seen whether the mix of religious fundamentalists, secular politicians and intellectuals would hold together. In the days leading up to the conference, hotel lobbies in Asmara offered an odd juxtaposition of white-robed religious clerics and Westernized expatriates in bluejeans.

"It's a marriage of convenience," said one Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly

Each group brings something to the table, experts said. Islamists offer military strength, including guns and fighters, and support from key clans; lawmakers have political experience; intellectuals contribute brain power and links to Somalis living around the world.

Participants said they were united by their opposition to Ethiopian troops, but it remained unclear whether they could shape their disparate views and backgrounds into a common political platform. Already, some delegates were expressing concern that the Islamic Courts Union or the speaker's faction might dominate the proceedings.

The most militant wing of the Islamic courts, Shabab, said last month that it would boycott the conference because organizers were too "secular-minded." Shabab, which claims to be affiliated with the Al Qaeda terrorist network, has taken responsibility for many of this year's bombings and assassinations in Mogadishu.

Aidid, a former Interior minister, said the congress was doomed if any faction attempted to use it as a springboard back into power. "We are not here to resurrect any group's selfish power struggle," he said.

Diplomats are taking a wait-and-see approach. Representatives from the U.S. and several other nations declined invitations to attend Thursday's opening. "The U.N. recognizes the transitional government as the leaders of Somalia, not this group," said one official.

Somalian government leaders dismissed the Asmara talks as meaningless. "Nothing will come out from it," said Mohammed Ali Nur, Somalia's ambassador in Nairobi, Kenya.

At least one delegate from last month's government-sponsored reconciliation conference expressed hope that those involved in the rival events would eventually meet.

"Neither group can reach a comprehensive peace agreement on their own," said Maandaq Omar, a delegate at the Mogadishu conference. "They need to come together at the same table to break the political deadlock and minimize the rampant violence."

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