Desperate for Peace, Somali Lawmakers Elect New President

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:15pm EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - A politician described as an ally of the U.S.-led war against terrorism has been elected the new president of Somalia, a war-torn country that has had no central government for a decade and has been viewed by the U.S. as a haven for terrorists.

Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, 69, was elected Sunday by Somalia's new 275-member transitional parliament in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

He defeated Abdullahi Ahmed Adow, a former diplomat and finance minister, by 189 votes to 79 in a second-round run-off after 24 candidates stood in a first-round vote.

A professional soldier, Yusuf was a graduate of the former Soviet Union's Frunze War College, where he studied military topography. He served as Somalia's military attache to Moscow during the 1960s.

Yusuf is currently also president of Puntland, a self-proclaimed state in northeastern Somalia.

His immediate appeal was to the international community to stand by Somalia and "help us disarm our militias which are destabilizing the Somali people."

Adow conceded defeat and expressed the hope that the new government "will bring peace and prosperity back to Somalia."

Another of Somalia's key political leaders, outgoing transitional President Abdulkassim Salat Hassan, also accepted the result, describing the election as "democratic."

Abdikadir Ali Abdullah, a Somali refugee living in Kenya for the past eight years, rejoiced at the election, calling it a show of political maturity for a nation that had been at war with itself for the past decade.

"It's a major step," Abdullah said here. "I believe a new Somalia is now a reality."

U.N. Special Representative for Somalia Winston Tubman praised the Somali lawmakers for their commitment to peace and for conducting the elections in an orderly and transparent manner.

"I hope that the Somali people will support the outcome because that will encourage the international community to give Somalis the backing they need."

Under a peace agreement negotiated over the past two years, Yusuf is now expected to appoint a prime minister who will in turn establish a government to run the country through a five-year transition period, after which fully democratic elections are scheduled.

The new government is due to relocate from Nairobi -- where it has been based for security reasons -- to Mogadishu in January, according to an official at the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, the regional development body that facilitated the peace talks.

Major challenges facing the new government include reconstructing infrastructure and disarming hundreds of thousands of armed men recruited by warlords who control sections of Somalia's territory.

The task of disarmament and restoring peace in Somalia will be an important test for the African Union's new peacekeeping force, which will be deployed there even before the government relocates from Nairobi.

Before Sunday's elections, all 24 presidential candidates signed a pledge agreeing to hand over to the new government any weapons held by them or their supporters.

Somali lawmakers last month urged the U.S. to help the country overcome its security challenges.

The U.S. has been conducting regional anti-terror operations from Somalia's northwestern neighbor, Djibouti.

Somalia has experienced anarchy since the 1991 overthrow of military ruler Mohammed Siad resulted in rival militias fighting for control. Two million Somalis fled, many becoming refugees in neighboring states.

In December 1992, President George H. W. Bush responded to a U.N. request by sending combat troops to help it deliver food and secure delivery routes into Somalia.

The following year, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed by militiamen in what became known as the Battle of Mogadishu. The U.S. forces were withdrawn by March 1994.

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