Somalia simmers

A talk with local attorney Hassan Mohamud about his native country's current tensions

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The news from Somalia in recent days has been grim. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post carried lengthy stories yesterday detailing the country's slide towards a new war. There have been recent clashes between troops affiliated with the Islamists who now control Mogadishu and much of the country, and Ethiopian army troops. The Ethiopian troops are in the country at the behest of Somalia's weak, U.S.- and U.N.-backed transitional government, which is now largely confined to the city of Baidoa. Eritrea--which has fought several bloody border wars with Ethiopia in recent years--has also been rumored to be funneling arms to the Islamists, raising the prospect of a ruinous regional war. With Minnesota's climbing population of immigrants from the Horn of Africa, the tensions are of acute interest to many local residents.

In 2002 Hassan Mohamud became the first Somali law school graduate in Minnesota. He is now an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis and teaches Islamic law at William Mitchell College of Law. Mohamud is also the imam of Al Taqwa Mosque in St. Paul and president of the Somali Institute for Peace and Justice. I spoke with him by phone yesterday about the situation in his homeland.

Mohamud says that the Islamists are extremely popular inside Mogadishu and elsewhere, having restored order and some social services for the first time since the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991. "They brought peace and security to a large part of the country within 16 days where the international community could not help the Somalis for 16 years," says Mohamud, noting that he's in regular contact with numerous family members living in Mogadishu. "They told me that they have had peace like they have never seen since 1991." The Islamists have also brought bans on television and music, and the beginnings of morality enforcement on the streets.

Mohamud believes that the U.S. is no longer seen as a credible arbiter in the region. He criticizes the country for its hasty withdrawl from Somalia in 1993 after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in the Battle of Mogadishu. More recently, Mohamud says, the U.S. has drawn the ire of many Somalis for supporting the removal of the U.N. arms embargo on the country and lending covert support to various warlords. "Putting this altogether people have doubts whether the U.S. can play an objective and fair role to establish peace in Somalia," he says.

Mohamud professes to be uncertain whether Somalis in Minnesota are providing financial assistance to the Islamist movement. "What I know is that they have overwhelming support inside of Somalia because of the peace and law and order," he says. "If you have the support of your people inside of Somalia you don't need any support from outside."

The Somali Institute for Peace and Justice recently hosted a forum in Minnesota attended by supporters of both the Islamist movement and the transitional government. "As Somalis are divided back home they are divided here also," he notes. But Mohamud says the dialogue revealed that ultimately both sides are seeking similar goals. "Somalis now they are tired of war," he insists. "They are ready to talk."

But as Mohamud's converstations with people inside the country have revealed in recent days, it may be too late for dialogue. "There are some clashes, but it's not major," he notes. "But when you talk to them they will tell you it is [just] a matter of time."


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