MOGADISHU, Somalia — The Islamic militia that defeated U.S.-backed warlords and seized nearly all of southern Somalia held talks Thursday with Somalia’s largely powerless government on the future of the lawless nation.
Meanwhile, warlords driven out of Mogadishu by an Islamist militia are advancing back toward the Somali capital from their last stronghold of Jowhar, residents said Thursday.
In a surprise, both the United States and the European Union issued somewhat conciliatory statements about the Islamic militia, which has been accused of sheltering al-Qaida leaders and wants to end 16 years of Somali anarchy by installing an Islamic government and court system.
The Islamic Courts Union militiamen still face fierce opposition from a clan-controlled pocket of the capital, Mogadishu, even though they drove out secular fighters Monday. The radical Islamic militia’s growing power has forced officials in Somalia’s interim government, and around the world, to take notice.
The U.S. has said it worried most about sheltering terrorists in Somalia — and that the courts union is hosting at least three al-Qaida leaders. But this week it said the group’s goal was to restore “some semblance of order.”
No real government
Somalia has been without a real government since largely clan-based warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, dividing this Horn of Africa nation of 8 million into a patchwork of rival fiefdoms.
The United States has not carried out direct action in Somalia since the deaths of 18 servicemen in a 1993 battle in Mogadishu depicted in the film “Black Hawk Down.”
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington Wednesday that the Islamic Courts Union’s aim, “is to try to lay the foundations for some institutions in Somalia that might form the basis for a better and more peaceful, secure Somalia where the rule of law is important.”
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Thursday he supported the interim government’s decision to launch a “dialogue in Mogadishu with the Islamic Courts, civil society, the business communities as well as other stakeholders.”
The U.S. statement came too soon after the Islamic militia’s victory to represent a real policy shift, said John Prendergast, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group. He said Washington likely was still reaching out to more moderate elements of the group.
McCormack said the courts union “isn’t a monolithic group.”
‘A bit schizophrenic’
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, have confirmed cooperating with the secular warlords opposing the union.
The U.S. also has said that Islamic leaders in Mogadishu are sheltering three al-Qaida leaders indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 231 people. The same al-Qaida cell is believed responsible for the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya, which killed 15 people, and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner over Kenya.
“It’s a bit schizophrenic,” Prendergast said of the U.S. statement Wednesday.
However, he said, “The overriding imperative now is to bring together Somalia’s warring parties into a process of state reconstruction that will provide our best antidote against extremism.”
Thousands protest in the streets
Mogadishu’s largest and historically strongest clan, the Abgals, drew about 2,000 people to the northern part of the city Thursday, shouting “We don’t need Islamic deception!” and carrying signs saying, “We don’t need to see innocent blood being spilled.”
Recent fighting in the capital has killed at least 330 people, many of them civilians.
Two ministers from the interim government were meeting with “top leaders of the Islamic Courts Union” in Mogadishu about Somalia’s future, government spokesman Abdirahman Nur Mohamed Dinari said.
The interim government has been wracked by infighting. It has not been able to enter the capital because of the violence, instead operating 155 miles away in the town of Baidoa.
Several Mogadishu residents said Thursday they don’t believe the militia can reconcile its beliefs with the U.N.-backed government.
“The Islamists want to act on the holy Quran, and the government has its own secular transitional charter,” said businessman Dalal Abdi Mohmed. “I suppose their attitudes are irreconcilable.”
In a letter to the United States and other governments, the chairman of the Islamic Courts Union said the U.S. bore some blame for the bloodshed.
“The alleged support of the U.S. government to these warlords has contributed considerably,” said to the letter, dated Wednesday and signed by militia leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.
Fighting back to the capital
Residents of Jowhar said Thursday that the secular alliance of warlords is advancing back toward the Somali capital from their last stronghold of Jowhar.
The residents, reached by telephone, told Reuters the Islamists were pulling back toward the town of Balad, which fell on Sunday and is on the road to the capital.
They said Jowhar warlords, reinforced by allies defeated in Mogadishu and Balad, had moved into positions south of the town that were previously occupied by the militia loyal to Mogadishu sharia courts.
“The (warlord) coalition has moved forward to Qalimoy, where the Islamic courts militia was yesterday. While the Islamic militia have moved back and are now in Gololey, which is 12 miles from Balad,” said local farmer Abdi Warsame.
“I think they moved back because their leaders are busy meeting in Mogadishu and they want to tighten their defenses there.”
The warlords have vowed to win back the capital.
Earlier, Islamic courts chairman Sheikh Sharif Ahmed said his forces would not push into Jowhar unless they were attacked.
Scores of residents had fled Jowhar fearing an Islamist offensive. They had stopped leaving on Thursday.
“The town is much calmer. Residents are happy the Islamic militia have moved back,” Warsame said.
© 2013 msnbc.com