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Somalia lawmakers elected moderate Islamist as president

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the former chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, is seen as someone who might be able to unite Somalia's warring clans.

February 01, 2009|Yusuf Hagi Hussein

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — A moderate Islamist leader was elected as Somalia's president Saturday, spurring street celebrations in the capital, Mogadishu, and raising hopes for improved security in the Horn of Africa nation.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a former high school teacher, was elected during a special session of the recently reformulated parliament, which met in the neighboring nation of Djibouti because of the ongoing violence in Somalia.

After three rounds of all-night voting, Ahmed defeated 14 other candidates, including Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein and the son of former Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who was toppled in 1991.

"This is a victory for myself and a victory for all Somali people," Ahmed told lawmakers.

Ahmed, 44, is widely viewed as someone who might be able to unite Somalia's warring clans. He is former chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, a religious alliance that ruled southern Somalia for six months in 2006.

U.S. and Ethiopian officials accused the courts union of being dominated by terrorists, and in December 2006 Ethiopian troops chased the group from Mogadishu.

Some former elements of the courts union launched an insurgency against Somalia's weak transitional government, but Ahmed led a breakaway faction that recently agreed to join parliament.

Ahmed replaces former President Abdullahi Yusuf, who resigned under pressure in December after refusing to open his government to opposition leaders, including Ahmed.

Analysts and Western diplomats praised lawmakers for reaching agreement on a new leader and forging a government of national unity.

African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping said in a statement that Ahmed's election was a "significant step . . . in the efforts to promote lasting reconciliation, peace and stability in Somalia."

But Shabab, an Islamist militia that broke with the courts union and has seized much of southern Somalia in recent months, rejected Ahmed, vowing to continue attacks.

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Hussein is a special correspondent.

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