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Somali president raises hopes of peace

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed's efforts to woo insurgents, rebuild security forces and rally lawmakers has impressed observers. His appointment of prime minister reinforces the optimism.

February 14, 2009|Edmund Sanders

NAIROBI, KENYA — With the naming of his prime minister Friday, Somalia's newly installed president is moving quickly to allay fears that his administration might collapse amid infighting and an insurgent onslaught.

Since taking office last month, President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, has impressed many with his aggressive campaign to woo insurgent leaders, rebuild security forces and rally Somalia's notoriously unwieldy parliament.

"This is a president who has hit the ground running," said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst at International Crisis Group.

When Ahmed's predecessor, warlord-turned-statesman Abdullahi Yusuf, was forced to resign in December, many feared the days of the U.N.-recognized transitional government were numbered. Ethiopian troops who had been supporting it had begun withdrawing and insurgents were poised to seize all of southern Somalia.

"But so far there is a lot of hope and optimism toward this new government," said Ali Said Omar Ibrahim, head of the Center for Peace and Democracy, a conflict resolution group.

Ahmed, a former geography teacher, became a national figure in 2006 during the six-month reign of the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders and militias he led. Despite the union's efforts to impose strict Islamic law in some parts of the country, citizens recall Ahmed's tenure as the safest, most prosperous period in Somalia since 1991, when the government collapsed and civil war erupted. Seaports reopened. Crime and piracy were reduced. Investors returned.

But Ethiopia and the U.S. accused the Islamic union of having links to Al Qaeda, and Ahmed, who was chairman of its executive council, fled after Ethiopian troops crossed the border in December 2006. He reemerged with other Islamist leaders in neighboring Eritrea, vowing to overthrow Somalia's government. But last year, he broke ties with the insurgents and led a faction that joined the government.

"People like him because he's not seen as a clansman, or a warlord or an extremist," Ibrahim said.

Ahmed's decision Friday to name Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, the son of a slain president, as prime minister struck a similar chord of reconciliation and independence.

Sharmarke's father, Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, was a popularly elected president who was assassinated during a 1969 military coup. The son spent most of his life outside Somalia and was educated in the U.S. and Canada. After working in various United Nations jobs, Sharmarke, 48, most recently served as Somalia's envoy in Washington.

Like Yusuf, the former president, he belongs to the large Darod clan, a crucial factor in Somalia's clan-based political system.

Ahmed is earning praise from international diplomats for his quick steps toward negotiating a cease-fire with insurgents, some of the same figures the U.S. accuses of having terrorist ties. Working through intermediaries, Ahmed is having preliminary talks with people such as Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who heads a rival Islamist faction, and Mukhtar Robow, a leader of the Shabab, the leading insurgent militia that has frequently attacked the government with mortar shells and roadside bombs.

Ahmed's Islamic credentials and the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops are expected to weaken the insurgents, who have characterized their struggle as a holy war against foreign and Christian invaders.

His "appointment has thrown Shabab into disarray," said analyst Abdi. "It has undercut the argument that the only way Islamists can come to power in Somalia is through military means."

With Ahmed widely expected to govern based on Islamic law, Abdirahman Issa, a Mogadishu resident, said he couldn't understand what the insurgents were still fighting for. "They have been fighting for Islamic law, and now it will be implemented," he said.

Several hard-line groups have continued their assaults, including a mortar attack against the presidential palace during Ahmed's recent visit to Mogadishu, the capital.

Last week, Robow denounced the new government.

"This government is no different from the government of Yusuf, and we will fight it," he told reporters. An Al Qaeda leader Friday released a video on an Islamist website calling for more attacks against Somalia's government, Reuters news agency reported.

Ahmed is also moving to rebuild Somalia's security forces and reaching out to clan leaders for support and fighters to restore stability in Mogadishu.

Analysts said he would need to balance his desire to make peace with insurgents against the need to mollify Ethiopia and the United States.

U.S. officials view the new government with cautious optimism. Talks are underway to remove some insurgents and opposition leaders, including Aweys, from Washington's list of suspected terrorists if they pledge to work with the new government, according to one U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Such a move, however, is likely to upset Ethiopians, Abdi said: "Ethiopians are not going to want to see people they defeated two years ago and whom they consider terrorists back in the government."

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edmund.sanders@ latimes.com

Special correspondent Mustafa Haji Abdinur in Mogadishu contributed to this report.

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