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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, Sharif Ahmed, a Complex Relationship

This is an excerpt from a larger story by Xan Rice or Kenya. He describes The History and relationship between Dahir Aweys of the Union of Islamic Courts, and Sharif Ahmed the New President of the Somalia Transitional Federal Government.

-Shimron Issachar

.........The Islamic Courts Union had two main leaders: Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, forty-four, a former geography teacher, and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a seventy-four year old henna-bearded cleric who appears on US terrorism lists for his alleged links to al Qaeda. One afternoon my fixer arranged an interview with Ahmed. We met in a heavily shaded room in a house near the mayor’s office.
“We just want to bring peace to the country,” Ahmed told me, speaking softly in Somali and trying to stress that being an Islamist did not necessarily mean being a threat to the outside world. “We will not impose anything on the people if the people are against it, not even sharia law.”

There was little time to impose anything. Within months the Courts had been swept out of power by Ethiopian forces backed by the United States, which viewed the Islamists as a terror threat. The weak and corrupt Transitional Federal Government, disliked by most Somalis and completely dependent on Ethiopian muscle, was installed in Mogadishu. Ahmed and Aweys both fled the country, leaving behind a brewing insurgency that claimed more than 16,000 civilian lives in two years, according to local human rights groups.

Today the Ethiopia occupation is over and the two former leaders are back in Mogadishu – and on opposite sides. In a twist that would have seemed highly improbable in 2006, Ahmed is now the Western-backed president of the transitional government. He has installed sharia law, though less out of popular demand than as a means of appeasing the hardline Islamist groups fiercely trying to oust his administration. This opposition, which is not united, includes the radical Shabaab guerillas, who have been carrying out punishing alleged criminals in areas under their control using amputations, and a more politically motivated militia called Hizbul Islam, which owes loyalty to Aweys.

Aweys returned to Mogadishu in April from Eritrea, where he had set up an opposition group that had strongly opposed Ahmed’s move in government. There were hopes that he would enter in discussions with Ahmed, who had said he was willing to talk to his former ally. Indeed, according to diplomatic sources, Sudan had even hosted Aweys for three weeks before his return, with the Sudanese president Omar el Bashir personally trying to convince him to support the transitional government.

Instead, Aweys’s passage home has breathed life into the insurgency, which had slowed significantly following the departure of the Ethiopian troops in January. A day after arriving back Aweys demanded the withdrawal of the 4300 African Union peacekeepers before entering into any talks, and then called for all Islamist groups to fight the government, which he described as a tool of the West.

Soon Mogadishu was in turmoil once more. Nearly 200 people have been killed in the fighting between pro-government and Islamist-led militias over the past two weeks, and more than 40,000 people have fled the city. Some have headed into neighbouring Kenya, to the world’s largest refugee settlement, Dabaab, designed for 90,000 people, which squats in desert-like terrain. When I visited last August there were 210,000 people in the camp, and no space for new arrivals. Now the population is 270,000, with 5000 more people arriving every month.

The Shabaab, which has used Somalia’s complex social dynamics to advantage by securing the support of some smaller clans that feel marginalised, has gained ground in Mogadishu in the latest fighting and took control of the strategic town of Jowhar, fifty-six miles north of Mogadishu, last Sunday. Hizbul Islam has also made gains. There are reports of several hundred foreign guerrillas fighting alongside the opposition groups, and warnings that the government may soon fall, leaving al Qaeda-linked radicals in charge. Both the likelihood of the government’s collapse and the strength of the Islamists’ terror links may well be exaggerated, but nonetheless there is serious concern as to what comes next.
One of the a

One of the diplomats who was closely involved in the talks in Djibouti that led to Ahmed joining the government said that both Somalis and international community had “taken their foot off the accelerator” over the past few months, thinking that the worst fighting was over. “There is a very serious risk of underestimating and failing to understand the dangers ahead, particularly among the international community. In New York [at the United Nations], some diplomats are still saying: ‘So Aweys is back in Somalia, and that’s a good thing isn’t it?’ – they still don’t get the dynamics at play.”....

(Xan Rice is a Nairobi-based journalist who writes regularly for Inside Story.)

The Rest @ Inside Story (Australia)

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