MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Weary residents of Somalia’s war-torn capital headed to Friday prayers throughout the city, bolstered by a week of relative calm since an Islamic militia seized control of Mogadishu and tightened its grip on this lawless nation.
It was the first time in more than a decade that residents have observed prayers in a unified city, albeit one unified by force.
The militia pushed U.S.-backed warlords out of the capital Monday and seized nearly all of southern Somalia after weeks of fighting that killed at least 330 people. Their growing power has forced officials in Somalia’s weak interim government, and around the world, to take notice.
The Islamic Courts Union, which has been accused of sheltering al-Qaeda leaders, began talks Thursday with the interim government. And in a surprise, both the United States and the European Union issued somewhat conciliatory statements about the militia, which wants to end 16 years of Somali anarchy by installing an Islamic government and court system.
The Islamic Courts Union militiamen still face fierce opposition from a clan-controlled pocket of the capital, Mogadishu, even though they drove out secular fighters Monday.
The U.S. has said it is worried most about terrorists sheltering in Somalia, and that the courts union is hosting at least three al-Qaeda leaders. But this week it said the group’s goal was to restore “some semblance of order.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that the Islamic courts union’s aim, “is to try to lay the foundations for some institutions in Somalia that might form the basis for a better and more peaceful, secure Somalia where the rule of law is important.”
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Thursday he supported the interim government’s decision to launch a “dialogue in Mogadishu with the Islamic Courts, civil society, the business communities as well as other stakeholders.”
The U.S. statement came too soon after the Islamic militia’s victory to represent a real policy shift, said John Prendergast, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group. He said Washington likely was still reaching out to more moderate elements of the group.
McCormack said the courts union “isn’t a monolithic group.”
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, have confirmed cooperating with the secular warlords opposing the union.
The U.S. also has said that Islamic leaders in Mogadishu are sheltering three al-Qaida leaders indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 231 people. The same al-Qaeda cell is believed responsible for the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya, which killed 15 people, and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner over Kenya.
Somalia has been without a real government since largely clan-based warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, dividing this Horn of Africa nation of 8 million into a patchwork of rival fiefdoms.
The United States has not carried out direct action in Somalia since the deaths of 18 servicemen in a 1993 battle in Mogadishu depicted in the film “Black Hawk Down.”
The U.N. Security Council expressed concern Thursday over the recent violence in Somalia, and the United Nations announced that a top official will head to the breakaway Somaliland province for talks with leaders there.
Mogadishu’s largest and historically strongest clan, the Abgals, drew about 2,000 people to the northern part of the city Thursday, shouting “We don’t need Islamic deception!” and carrying signs saying, “We don’t need to see innocent blood being spilled.”
Somalia’s interim government has been wracked by infighting. It has not been able to enter the capital because of the violence, instead operating 155 miles (250 kilometers)away in the town of Baidoa.
Several Mogadishu residents said Thursday they don’t believe the militia can reconcile its beliefs with the U.N.-backed government.
“The Islamists want to act on the holy Quran, and the government has its own secular transitional charter,” said businessman Dalal Abdi Mohmed. “I suppose their attitudes are irreconcilable.”
In a letter to the United States and other governments, the chairman of the Islamic Courts Union said the U.S. bore some blame for the bloodshed. “The alleged support of the U.S. government to these warlords has contributed considerably,” said to the letter, dated Wednesday and signed by militia leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.
The severely weakened secular alliance was preparing to defend its last stronghold in Jowhar, 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Mogadishu. If militiamen capture Jowhar and consolidate power in Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union will effectively control all the major towns in the south except Baidoa.