The warlords who have ruled Mogadishu for 15 years were on the run Monday. One, Muse Sudi Yalahow, was holed up in a hospital north of the city, surrounded by opposing fighters. Others fled the capital after their forces were pushed from the center.
They were defeated by heavily armed militia fighters allied with the Shariah courts that have grown in influence throughout Somalia in recent years, filling a void left by the lack of a government. The Islamists are a loose coalition of leaders who have put forward Islam, the universal religion in Somalia, as the way out of the country’s long decline into anarchy.
“The people of Mogadishu have finally gotten some peace today,” Ali Mohammed, 32, a schoolteacher, said in a telephone interview from Mogadishu on Monday night. “We’ve had war for so long and we’re tired of it.”
He added that he and others fear whether the courts will clamp down on their lives and impose a stricter form of Islam. “We don’t know what’s next,” he said.
Washington has been accused of secretly financing the warlords, who fashioned themselves as a counterterrorism alliance that was rooting out Al Qaeda elements in Mogadishu. U.S. officials said they feared the country could descend into a situation similar to Afghanistan’s, when the Taliban seized control of the country and eventually gave safe haven to Osama bin Laden.
U.S. officials already have asserted that the Islamists are shielding a handful of foreign fighters with links to Al Qaeda.
Although Bush administration officials have not confirmed whether any payments were made to the warlords – as outside experts and politicians in the region have asserted – many in Mogadishu said the widespread belief that money was changing hands strengthened the Islamists, who accused the warlords of being puppets of Washington.
Initial statements from the new rulers stressed the need for dialogue instead of warfare, which residents and diplomats monitoring the developments viewed as positive.
Since February, more than 300 people have been killed and more than 1,700 have been wounded in what has been called the fiercest fighting Mogadishu had seen in 15 years – day and night attacks with rocket propelled grenades, artillery and automatic weapons.
“We want to restore peace and stability to Mogadishu,” Sheik Sharif Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, said in a radio interview broadcast Monday, The Associated Press reported. “We are ready to meet and talk to anybody and any group for the interest of the people.”
He added words that made clear the religious nature to the regime to come: “We won the fight against the enemy of Islam.”
Backing the Islamists have been business leaders eager to end the arbitrary rule of the warlords, as well as freelance gunmen willing to work for anyone who pays them a salary and supplies them with a daily fix of khat, the natural stimulant that is widely chewed among Somalis for its narcotic effect.
Now that the Islamists have taken over, the question remains how they will govern and whether infighting among the Islamists themselves might send the city back into the chaos it has long known.
“We have to appeal to the moderates in this Islamist movement,” said Mario Raffaelli, the Italian special envoy for Somalia. “We have to make clear that we are supporting the government.”
The upheaval in Mogadishu came as a transitional government that was created after two years of peace talks struggled to establish a toehold in the country.
Based in Baidoa, 250 kilometers, or 155 miles, outside Mogadishu – because it lacked the strength to take on the many gunmen in the capital – the transitional government finds itself negotiating with a largely unknown force.
In a late-night cabinet meeting Sunday, as the victory by the Islamists became clear, the government decided to try to open talks with them.
They also fired the four warlords who had been battling the Islamists, all four of whom held cabinet positions in the new government but flouted calls by their colleagues that they stop fighting.
The four were Mohamed Qanre Afrah, minister of national security; Muse Sudi Yalahow, minister of commerce; Botan Isse Alin, minister of demobilization; and Omar Mohamed Mohamud, minister of religious affairs.
The Islamic militias have been slowly gaining control over the capital for weeks.
On Sunday, they took control of the strategic town of Balad, 30 kilometers north of Mogadishu, in fighting that killed 18 people. That cut off the warlords’ northern supply route.
On Monday the Islamic fighters took Davniile, the stronghold of Mohamed Qanyare, who left the area two days ago after elders in his clan criticized the heavy civilian casualties that his tactics had caused.
Somalia has been without a central government since the country tumbled into anarchy in 1992.
A U.S.-led humanitarian-aid effort in 1993, which morphed into a hunt for some of Mogadishu’s warlords, ended after 18 American soldiers were killed in a battle made famous by the book “Black Hawk Down.”
The United States has largely kept the country at arm’s length ever since, viewing with skepticism the 14 failed peace processes over the years.
The latest government, carefully balanced by clan representation, has been urging Washington to back it more vigorously.