Monday, June 26, 2006

NAIROBI, Kenya — The radical cleric named to lead the Muslim militia controlling most of Somalia’s south said yesterday that he envisions an Islamic state, a stand likely to reinforce U.S. fears the nation could become a haven for extremists.

Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who already was on the U.S. terrorist watch list as a suspected collaborator with al Qaeda, made the comment while discussing efforts to form a functioning central government in Somalia for the first time in 15 years.

“Somalia is a Muslim nation and its people are also Muslim, 100 percent. Therefore, any government we agree on would be based on the holy Koran and the teachings of our prophet Muhammad,” Sheik Aweys told the Associated Press in a telephone interview, his first comments to the press since being named head of the Islamic militia Saturday.

The militia defeated an alliance of U.S.-backed secular warlords this month to take control of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and now holds sway over much of southern Somalia.

Sheik Aweys’ stance could put Somalia on a collision course with the United States and the United Nations. The previous militia leader, Sheik Sharif Ahmed, had been reaching out to the West and Somalia’s largely powerless U.N.-backed interim government.

Sheik Aweys, 71, speaking from his home in central Somalia, condemned Western-style democracy and said he was under no obligation to abide by the wishes of the West.

“It is not compulsory for us to hate what the Westerners hate,” said Sheik Aweys, a former military colonel.

“Our relationship with the U.S. administration will depend on how the U.S. treats us,” he added. “If it treats us well, we will also treat them well. If it behaves badly, it will be responsible.”

The U.S. government took a cautious stance, saying it had no plans to engage with Sheik Aweys but adding it was not ready to conclude he wants to turn Somalia into a terrorist state.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would wait to see whether the militia shows a commitment to fight terrorism, makes an effort to meet the humanitarian needs of the Somali people and works with the interim government.

“If they want to have partners in the international community, if they want to work with the U.S., they want to work with the other members of the international community, we’ll see if they meet those standards,” Mr. McCormack said.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, the United States put Sheik Aweys on a terrorist watch list because he and an Islamic group he founded — al-Itihaad — were thought to have had links to Osama bin Laden while bin Laden was living in Sudan in the early 1990s. U.S. officials have not elaborated on the purported links.

Underlining the apparent tougher line, militia leaders said yesterday that they will publicly stone to death four suspected rapists if they are convicted in Jowhar, 55 miles from Mogadishu.

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