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Somalia militia 'faces opposition'

U.S. concerned Mogadishu could become base for terrorists

Gunmen drive outside the Banadir stadium in Mogadishu on Tuesday during a demonstration.


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Islamic militia that has claimed control of Somalia's capital Mogadishu still faces opposition from some of residents and is unlikely to be able to form a new government, according to observers.

The Islamic Courts Union, which is suspected of ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network, claimed Monday to have wrested control of the war-torn city of some 2 million residents from a U.S.-backed coalition of warlords who call themselves an anti-terrorist alliance.

The country, located on the Horn of Africa, has had no functioning central government since 1991, and the United States considers it a potential haven for al Qaeda.

Mohamed Amin, a reporter for Somalia's Shabelle Radio, said thousands of supporters of the secular warlords joined protests against the Islamic militia in northern Mogadishu on Tuesday.

At the same time, members of some Somali clans called on the Courts Union to withdraw from territory it captured in recent fighting.

"Now there are fears that new fighting may erupt between the clans in Mogadishu," Amin told CNN.

In Texas, U.S. President George W. Bush said Tuesday that he was keeping a close eye on developments in Somalia and had discussed the situation Monday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

He said Washington did not want to see the strife-torn country "become a place from which terrorists can plot and plan."

"We're watching very carefully the developments there, and we will strategize more when I get back to Washington as to how best to respond to the latest incident there in Somalia," Bush told reporters in Laredo after visiting Border Patrol posts in Texas and New Mexico.

The ICU claimed to have seized control of Mogadishu on Monday, after some of the worst fighting since the country was plunged into anarchy with the ouster of longtime strongman Mohamed Siad Barre.

The group, which supports the establishment of Islamic law in Somalia, promised to "engage the rest of the world in a way that takes into account the interest of our country."

A U.N.-backed transitional administration based in the inland city of Baidoa wields little influence, though African Union officials have urged the United States to come to its aid.

The U.N. special representative for Somalia, Francois Lonseny Fall, called on the Islamic forces Tuesday to join talks with the transitional government and other parties.

John Prendergast, an analyst for the Washington-based International Crisis Group, said the Islamic militia was likely to be too busy securing the territory it has recently captured to establish a new government, but might negotiate "a very specific role" within the transitional government.

"For now, no one is going to view them as the government in Mogadishu," he told CNN. "There's still too much flux and too much uncertainty going forward."

The United States has had no direct involvement in Somalia since 1994, when U.S. troops -- originally dispatched on a humanitarian mission -- were withdrawn after becoming embroiled in the country's civil war.

But Prendergast said U.S. operatives had been supporting the secular warlords, many of whom were the same militia leaders who fought pitched battles in the streets of Mogadishu in the 1990s.

Prendergast said the ICU had harbored suspects in the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in east Africa and against a tourist hotel and an Israeli airliner in Kenya in 2002.

'Incubator for terrorism'

He said the United States first hoped to have the warlords snatch suspected al Qaeda operatives, but "The results have been fairly catastrophic."

"It remains to be seen whether the U.S.-backed groups can live to see another day and fight for control of some of the territory they've lost," he said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington was concerned about the potential for al Qaeda to establish a presence in Somalia, but he declined to comment on reports that the secular warlords had U.S. backing.

"We work with a variety of individuals and have interest in working with a variety of groups in Somalia," McCormack told reporters Tuesday.

Prendergast said the United States "really blew the chance" to help restore a functioning government.

"We are going to have to really re-look at the strategy and see how can we rebuild a state in Somalia," he said. "Otherwise it's going to be an incubator for terrorism."

McCormack said U.S. policy had been to build up institutions that would be "mutually reinforcing" in keeping the Horn of Africa free of terrorists and restoring order to Somalia, "but that's going to take a lot of work on the part of the international community as well as on the part of the Somali people."

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