Somalis enjoy new freedoms as government vows to take control after courts driven out

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- For hundreds of young men, the promise of a brighter future and the Somali government's victory over a fundamentalist Islamic movement were symbolized by a flickering blue screen in a dusty Mogadishu movie theater.

"This is freedom and entertainment," Ahmed Abdi Ali said Tuesday as an Indian movie about a torrid love triangle played -- the kind of film that was banned by the Muslim militants. "The Islamic courts are gone."

For the first time in more than a decade, an internationally recognized government is operating in Mogadishu after driving out the Islamic courts movement that wanted to rule Somalia by the Quran. Although trouble is always lurking in this violent, gun-infested country, the reign of the widely feared Islamic courts appears to be over.

The group had imposed its strict interpretation of Islam on Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia since it took power in June, banning movies and Western music and terrifying residents into submission with the threat of floggings and public executions.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said his forces, backed by Ethiopian troops with tanks and MiG fighter jets, had neutralized the Islamists and forced them to give up or scatter into the bush. He said he does not expect any more major fighting.

"Maybe small fights can take place, but we are trying to destroy them," he said.

Still, bringing peace to Somalia is a daunting task. Until Ethiopia stepped in two weeks ago, the government controlled just one town, and many Somalis have little confidence in the administration's ability to pacify -- much less rebuild -- the country alone.

And the country is, indeed, in ruins. Mogadishu is a destroyed, desperate city after 20 years of civil war. Lamp posts that haven't been illuminated in years are pocked with bullet holes and shrapnel. Cathedrals, courthouses and homes have been bombed into rubble or dismantled brick by brick.

Gunshots ring out daily on city streets, and three warlords who once ruled the capital are back now that the Islamists are gone. Many fear the warlords are gathering their forces and might challenge the government.

Perhaps the most insidious threat is from an Iraq-style guerrilla war, which the Islamic group says it's planning with fighters it claims are hiding in Mogadishu.

"We will fight the Ethiopian forces in the country," Abdirahman Mudey, a spokesman for the Council of Islamic Courts, said Tuesday, reiterating his group's claim that Ethiopia is occupying Somalia.

Residents of a southern Somali border town said they witnessed Ethiopian military aircraft, believed to be pursuing Islamic fighters, bombing an unspecified area within Kenya on Tuesday.

"Four military helicopters flew over our town several times and bombarded somewhere on the Kenyan side of the border," said Mohamud Ilmi Osman, a resident of the town of Dhobley. Kenyan officials were not immediately available for comment.

The Somali government says the first step to establishing order is disarming the public, but the nation is awash in weapons: Kalashnikov rifles, machine guns, hand grenades and mortars are readily available at the Bakaara Market in the capital.

"These weapons are our business, our work," said Farhan Geede Hussein, a weapons dealer at the market. "We bought them, so it's impossible for us to just hand them over."

Gedi has given residents three days, starting Tuesday, to voluntarily surrender their weapons at two locations -- the old seaport and Villa Baidoa, once a government building under the regime of dictator Siad Barre. But not one person was seen giving up arms at either site Tuesday during two separate visits, hours apart.

Ethiopian troops standing outside the crumbling white stone walls of Villa Baidoa said nobody had arrived and refused to allow reporters inside. At the seaport, a few people were milling around hoping to watch the disarmament, but left disappointed.

"No one is here," said Mohamed Ali, 28, gesturing across the rock-strewn road that leads to the shark-infested water. "No one is even here to collect the guns."

Somalia has been without an effective government since 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew Barre and turned on each other. The government was formed two years ago with the help of the United Nations, but was weakened by internal rifts.

The intervention of Ethiopia prompted a military advance that was a stunning turnaround for the government. But many Somalis resent the Ethiopians' presence. Somalia, a Muslim country, and Ethiopia, with its large Christian population, fought a brutal war in 1977.

The Islamic group's strict interpretation of Islam drew comparisons to the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, although many Somalis credited the council with bringing a semblance of order to the country.

The ouster of the Islamists allowed men like Abdi Ali, who crowded the Mogadishu movie theater Tuesday, at least two hours of letting loose.

"This is a movie about two women chasing one man," he said, his eyes fixed on the screen. "If I couldn't watch this, I'd probably be sleeping right now."

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