updated 6/25/2006 6:25:27 PM ET 2006-06-25T22:25:27

The Islamic militia that controls Somalia’s capital and just named a suspected al-Qaida associate as its leader said Sunday it is still willing to negotiate with the weak interim government that has been sitting in the unstable country’s west.

The militia’s new leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, condemned the interim government in the past and said he opposed Western-style democracy for Somalia. He could not be reached for comment Sunday; several officials said he was not in Mogadishu.

A top member of the militia said the decision Saturday to restructure the group by adding dozens of new members as well as the new leader was a way to incorporate “different aspects of the community” as it negotiates with the government.

“We recently had a preliminary deal with the interim government, so we decided to give an opportunity to selective members of the Somali people to join us in our coming negotiations with government,” Abdi-rahin Adow, the militia’s secretary, told The Associated Press.

The group, which changed its name from the Islamic Courts Union to the Somali Supreme Islamic Courts Council, wants a national government based on strict Islamic law. It says that is the only way for Somalia to emerge from 15 years of anarchy without a strong central government.

Hotbed for terrorists?
The appointment of Aweys is likely to stoke Washington’s long-standing fears that this Horn of Africa nation will become a haven for Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, much like Afghanistan did in the 1990s. The State Department had no immediate comment.

The Islamic militia seized control of Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia from an alliance of secular warlords earlier this month. Washington, which accuses the militia of harboring al-Qaida leaders responsible for deadly 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, supported the warlords.

A largely powerless, United Nations-backed government sits in Baidoa, 90 miles west of Mogadishu, but it has failed to assert any real control in the country.

Last week, the Islamic militia’s previous leader — the relatively moderate Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed — agreed to stop all military activities and recognize the interim government.

Fewer calls for sharia
In recent weeks, Ahmed had been softening his rhetoric calling for strict Islamic law in Mogadishu, instead telling foreign journalists that he wanted to abide by “the will of the people.”

Ahmed could not be reached for comment Sunday on his being replaced. His cell phone rang unanswered.

Although Ahmed is no longer the militia’s leader, he retains a prominent post as head of the newly restructured group’s executive committee. He and the rest of the group answer to Aweys, whose official title is chairman of the Islamic Consultative Council.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington released a list of individuals and organizations accused of being tied to terrorism. Aweys and a Somali group he founded called al-Itihaad al-Islaami were listed for their alleged links to bin Laden while he was living in Sudan in the early 1990s.

Aweys, a cleric believed to be in his 60s, told AP in past interviews that al-Itihaad no longer existed and said he had no ties to al-Qaida. He went into hiding following the Sept. 11 attacks and re-emerged only in August 2005, when he helped establish the Islamic militia.

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