- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia — An Islamic militia said to have links to al Qaeda seized Somalia’s capital yesterday after weeks of fighting with U.S.-backed secular warlords, raising fears that the nation could fall under the sway of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization.

The advance unified the city for the first time in more than a decade and after 15 years of anarchy in this Horn of Africa nation. But it also posed a direct challenge to a fledging U.N.-backed Somali government.

“We won the fight against the enemy of Islam. Mogadishu is under control of its people,” Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, said in a radio broadcast. The militia controls a 65-mile radius around the capital after fighting off a secular alliance of warlords.

The Islamic militia is gaining ground just as the U.N.-backed interim government struggles to assert control outside its base in Baidoa, 155 miles from Mogadishu. The prices of weapons soared there yesterday as fears grew that the militia could head to Baidoa next.

The militia is the first group to consolidate control over all of Mogadishu’s neighborhoods since the last government collapsed in 1991 and warlords took over, dividing this impoverished country of 8 million people into a patchwork of rival fiefdoms.

Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn., said the Islamic militia’s victory in Mogadishu was a turning point in the country’s history.

“It is exactly the same thing that happened with the rise to power of the Taliban” in Afghanistan, he said, adding that the extremists are “using the people’s weariness of violence, rape and civil war” to gain support for a government based on Islamic law.

The battle between the militia and the secular alliance has been intensifying in recent months, with more than 300 people killed and 1,700 wounded — many of them civilians caught in the crossfire of grenades, machine guns and mortars.

Alliance leaders could not be reached for comment yesterday and had likely fled Mogadishu.

The United States is backing the secular alliance in an attempt to root out any al Qaeda members operating in the Horn of Africa. U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, have confirmed cooperating with the warlords. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, president of Somalia’s transitional national government, has said Washington is funding the alliance.

The Bush administration has not confirmed or denied backing the alliance, saying only that they support those who fight terror.

The United States has not carried out any direct action in Somalia since the deaths of 18 servicemen in a 1993 battle depicted in the film “Black Hawk Down.”

The U.S. officials said recently that Islamic leaders in Mogadishu are sheltering three al Qaeda leaders indicted in the deadly 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The same al Qaeda cell is thought responsible for the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya that killed 15 persons and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner over Kenya.

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