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Islamic militants begin to consolidate power, but must overcome clan divisions

NAIROBI, Kenya – Islamic militiamen have consolidated their power in the Somali capital, but their leaders now have to navigate treacherous clan politics, the source of the country’s 15 years of anarchy.The clerics have so far cleverly used religious and nationalist rhetoric to win public support, but the transitional government will try to divide the Islamic leadership using rivalries among the dozens of clans and subclans, experts and average Somalis said. And pushing religion too hard as an antidote could backfire in a country unused to the hard line on Islam espoused by some of the new leaders.Somali society is broadly split between nomads and farmers, who then define themselves by clan. Each clan fits within a larger “family of clans” and can also be subdivided into subclans, or even sub-subclans. Since 99 percent of Somalis are Muslim, a Somali’s clan affiliation defines life and identity much more than Islam.When Islamic council representatives and government officials meet to discuss the country’s future in talks scheduled to begin Saturday under Arab League auspices in Sudan, the central questions will revolve around clan and religion.After overthrowing dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, clan-based warlords had divided the southern half of the country into warring fiefdoms until last month, when militiamen loyal to what began as an informal Islamic court system defeated the warlords.Supreme Islamic Courts Council leaders have presented themselves as pious religious men ready to end the clan struggle and to substitute it with an Islamic government committed to peace. The last of the warlords’ heavy weapons were turned over to the Islamic council Thursday, effectively ending any chance for the warlords to mount a counterattack from within the capital, Mogadishu.”We have been supporting warlords and their clan prejudice for many years. The only things it brought us were death and destruction, so now we prefer to support the Islamic courts,” said Mowlid Siad, who once fought on behalf of his clan, but recently joined the Islamic militia.Cabinet ministers in the only town the government controls, Baidoa, 150 miles northwest of Mogadishu, have tried to define the council as a surrogate for the Hawiye clan. Many Somalis and Somali experts wonder how long the council can avoid being dragged into clan politics.Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College, said that by making the council a loose coalition of clan-based courts and by espousing nationalist goals, the council has so far avoided clan rivalries.The council “is going to face more and more difficulties in managing clanism,” Menkhaus said. “Right now support for (an Islamic government) might be broad in that people don’t see any other alternative and they are happy with what the courts have done in Mogadishu, but it’s very thin.”Roland Marchal, a researcher at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris, said that clan politics have already been a problem for the courts. Controversy over how many seats each clan would have on the council itself led the group to abandon their initial list of appointments to meet the demands of other clans.”It is too early to say they are going to fail because of the clan dimension or the religious agenda,” Marchal said. “It depends on their ability to compromise.”He pointed out that an attempt to introduce an Islamic government in the mid-1990s without regard to clan realities failed miserably. Many of the men who led that effort hold senior positions within the council and they are unlikely to repeat the same mistakes.Marchal and Menkhaus agreed that one compromise the council must make is on how strictly they enforce Islamic law.”All of this morality policing is going to backfire on them,” Menkhaus said.Marchal said he felt recent incidents where two men were killed for watching television and a cleric ordered that Somalis who did not pray five times face the death penalty were isolated cases of zealotry and did not reflect the views of the council.It was not year clear what role extremists from the wider Islamic world might play. The Associated Press has obtained a recruitment video that shows Arab fighters alongside Somali Islamic militiamen and encourages more Arab Islamic extremists to join them. In tapes attributed to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Somalia is portrayed as a battleground in his global war on the United States.The council has grown increasingly radical since seizing Mogadishu, replacing a moderate who had been its main leader with a radical cleric the U.S. has linked to al-Qaida.Many Somalis wonder if there is a basis for the talks between the Islamic council and the transitional government. In recent days the same warlords who ruled Mogadishu have arrived in Baidoa and have held private meetings with top government officials.”The Islamic courts are based on an Islamic system,” said Hassan Fidow Gedi, a 60-year-old clan elder in Mogadishu. The government is “based on clan power sharing and its system is a secular constitution. Aren’t these two things irreconcilable? I think they can’t agree and in the end there will be a bloody conflict.”


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