- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

MOGADISHU, Somalia

The president of Somalia’s U.N.-backed government resigned Monday amid deepening international pressure, a move that could usher in more chaos as a strengthening Islamic insurgency scrambles for power.

Within hours of Abdullahi Yusuf’s resignation, mortars shells slammed into the pockmarked streets near the presidential palace in the capital of Mogadishu, where the government maintains only a token presence.

Mr. Yusuf is the latest leader to have failed to pacify Somalia during two decades of turmoil. The Horn of Africa country has been beset by anarchy, violence and an insurgency that has killed thousands of civilians and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing for their lives.

“Most of the country is not in our hands,” Mr. Yusuf said in a speech before parliament in Baidoa - one of the only towns controlled by Somalia’s government, which has been sidelined by Islamic insurgents with purported ties to al Qaeda.

There have been more than a dozen attempts to form an effective government since 1991. Meanwhile, all public institutions have crumbled and the once-beautiful seaside capital is now a gun-blasted shantytown. The lawlessness also has allowed piracy to flourish off the coast in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

In the address broadcast nationwide on the radio, Mr. Yusuf said he could not unite Somalia’s bickering leadership and that the country was “paralyzed.”

“After seeing all these things, I have finally quit,” said Mr. Yusuf, who was president for four years. Meanwhile, troops from neighboring Ethiopia are scheduled to pull out this week, leaving a massive power vacuum after two years of propping up the weak Somali government.

The parliament speaker will stand as acting president until parliament elects a new leader within 30 days. There have been no announcements of who might be under consideration, but many believe Mr. Yusuf’s absence will allow Islamist leaders into the government. Mr. Yusuf had largely rejected that idea.

The most aggressive Islamic insurgency group, al-Shabab, has made dramatic territorial gains in recent months, and insurgents now control most of the country. In a statement Monday, al-Shabab said Mr. Yusuf was resigning “with shame.” The statement said it was too early to tell whether Mr. Yusuf’s successor would be an improvement.

The United States accuses al-Shabab of harboring the al Qaeda-linked terrorists who blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Many of the insurgency’s senior figures are Islamic radicals; some are on the State Department’s list of wanted terrorists.

The U.N. envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, who has been trying to salvage an ineffective peace deal in the country, welcomed Mr. Yusuf’s resignation and said “a new page of Somalia history is now open.”

The United Nations has brokered peace deals between the government and an opposition faction, but they have failed to quell the political and violent chaos. Al-Shabab has refused to participate in the talks.

Mr. Yusuf, who like many of Somalia’s leaders is a former warlord, has been accused of being an obstacle to peace. Earlier this month, he tried to fire his prime minister, but was rebuffed by parliament. Neighboring countries, including Kenya, have threatened to impose sanctions on Mr. Yusuf and his family.

Thousands of civilians have been killed or maimed by mortar shells, machine-gun crossfire and grenades in near-daily fighting in this arid country. The United Nations says Somalia has 300,000 acutely malnourished children, but attacks and kidnappings of aid workers have shut down many humanitarian projects.

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