Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - African leaders appear willing to tolerate and even cautiously support an Islamist militia that has taken control of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. The Islamists, believed to be sympathetic to al Qaeda, want to establish a state based on shari'a law.
The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it would "reserve judgment at this point" about the nature of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).
The body - not a "monolithic group," the State Department said -- has sent an open letter to the U.S. and other governments seeking to allay concerns about harboring terrorists.
"We share no objectives, goals or methods with groups that sponsor or support terrorism," the group's Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed said in the message.
While declining to characterize the ICU, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. wanted to "work with those individuals or groups who want to fight the presence or combat the presence of foreign terrorists on Somali soil, and also ... who are interested in a more peaceful Somalia, a Somalia where institutions matter."
Earlier this week, the Islamic Courts Union declared victory in Mogadishu over the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT), an umbrella of warlords and businessmen set up last February with the stated intention of fighting terrorists. The alliance has fled the area, reportedly falling back to defensive positions north of the city.
The U.S. has neither confirmed nor denied claims that it has financially supported the ARPCT.
Both the African Union and the leadership of Somalia's fragile transitional federal government (TFG) - based outside the capital because of the security situation there - said the international community should give the Islamists a chance to see whether they would engage in dialogue with other parties in the conflict.
The union is the first faction to control the capital since clan-based civil war broke out there 15 years ago.
Ahmed, the union head, said the body had no political agenda but rather wanted "to return power back to Somali people."
"Our people have been oppressed under the rule of warlords and its time that they decided their destiny," he said.
But Ahmed has also used rhetoric worrying to observers, for instance declaring war on "infidels," a derogatory term Islamist radicals use for non-Muslims and Westerners.
Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi of the TFG, which is based in the city of Baidoa, about 150 miles from Mogadishu, welcomed the union's victory saying the warlords factions had never been interested in peace or a unitary government.
TFG President Abdulahi Yusuf condemned the U.S. for allegedly supporting the warlords, saying the money should instead have been given to the government to strengthen its military capacity to rein in the warlords.
African Union chairman and Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso also said any support from the U.S. should have been directed to the two-year-old transitional government.
'Islamists could take over'
Battles in recent weeks between the warlords and Islamists have so far claimed the lives of 350 people and injured 1,500 more.
Although the union has voiced interest in negotiating with the transitional government, a Somali analyst told CNSNews.com it was possible that the Islamists could dislodge the TFG and take control of the whole country.
Aden Mohamed said the Islamists enjoyed the support of many in Somalia who had suffered for years under the warlords' anarchy.
"Public support for the Islamists has left the warlords very vulnerable. Hopefully, they could make peace with the Islamists which is good for the country."
Mohamed said the best option for the international community would be to wait and see how the situation develops rather than take sides.
In neighboring Kenya, where the transitional government was formed and initially based, and which has played a key role in efforts to restore order to Somalia, the government on Tuesday banned warlords from entering Kenyan territory.
On Wednesday one leading ARPCT figure was arrested in Nairobi and deported to Dubai.
Since their formation, the Islamic courts network has reportedly clamped down on robbery, drugs and the proliferation of pornographic films in areas under their authority.
They have also adjudicated over legal and family issues, in line with shari'a law.
One of the 11 courts is headed by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a leader of an al-Qaeda-linked group in Somalia known as al-Itihaad al-Islamiah, which the U.S. added to its foreign terrorist organization list shortly after 9/11.
Another court is led by Adan Hashi Ayro, an Afghanistan-trained militia commander also accused of involvement in terrorism.
(CNSNews International Editor Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)
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