- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

CAIRO (AP) - Al-Qaida’s chief Osama bin Laden urged Somali militants to overthrow the country’s new president in a new Web audiotape posted Thursday, trying to torpedo a new push for peace in a lawless African nation where many fear al-Qaida is gaining a foothold.

The 11 1/2-minute audiotape aimed to rally Islamic militants at a time when the new president, moderate Islamist Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, is working to split their ranks and pull in some to support his government.

For years, Islamic militant groups _ including ones linked to al-Qaida _ have battled the feeble U.N.-backed central government, which controls only a small part of the capital, Mogadishu.

Ahmed, elected by parliament in January, is a moderate from the Islamist opposition and has succeeded in drawing several other groups out of the insurgency. The aim is to isolate hard-line militants, particularly the main group al-Shabab, which is believed to be allied to al-Qaida and which controls a large swath of the country.

In the audiotape, bin Laden lashed out at the new president as a turncoat and tool of the United States, saying his election was “induced by the American envoy in Kenya,” a reference to the U.S. ambassador in Nairobi.

Ahmed “turned … to partner up with the infidel” in a national unity government, bin Laden said. He accused Ahmed of abandoning his religion by entering the government.

Ahmed “must be dethroned and fought,” bin Laden said, adding that militants are obliged to “continue fighting the apostate government.”

The recording, titled “Fight on, champions of Somalia,” was posted on an Islamic militant Web forum where al-Qaida often releases messages from bin Laden and other top leaders.

Bin Laden’s message was entirely focused on Somalia, a sign of al-Qaida’s intense interest in the country, which has been in chaos for 17 years, torn apart by warlords and Islamic militant groups. Al-Qaida has long had a presence: It helped Somali militants battle U.S. troops deployed here in the 1990s and has claimed to have had a role in the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” battle in which 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis were killed.

U.S. counterterrorism officials have warned of al-Qaida’s growing ties with the powerful al-Shabab group, which frequently battles government troops and militia allies and is blamed in attacks on African Union peacekeepers in the country. In Feb. 2008, the U.S. State Department added al-Shabab, which means “the Youth,” to its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Ahmed’s election as president has been welcomed by the United Nations and Washington. His predecessor Abdullahi Yusuf resigned in December over his failure to stop the Islamic insurgency, and he went into exile.

Ahmed emerges from a coalition of Islamic militants known as the Council of Islamic Courts, which brought a semblance of peace to Somalia for six months in 2006. But two years ago, troops from U.S. ally Ethiopia invaded Somalia and removed the union because of feared links to al-Qaida. Militants launched a bloody insurgency against the Ethiopians and their ally, the weak U.N.-backed central government.

Ethiopian troops withdrew in January as part of an elaborate U.N.-brokered deal to bring onboard moderate Islamists and dissident lawmakers.

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Associated Press Writer Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

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