MOGADISHU, Somalia — Clan leaders considered abandoning Islamic militias who control the Somali capital and throwing their support to government forces, which advanced to within striking distance of this beleaguered city Wednesday.
Islamic courts fighters in Mogadishu, meanwhile, were seen changing out of their uniforms into civilian clothes. Women selling qat — the popular leafy stimulant banned by the militias — crowded the streets.
The Council of Islamic Courts seized the capital in June and went on to take much of southern Somalia, often without fighting. They were later joined by foreign militants, including Pakistanis and Arabs.
The Islamic movement seemed invincible after capturing the capital, but they are no match for Ethiopia, which has the strongest military in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopian forces crossed the border Sunday to reinforce the internationally recognized Somali government, which was bottled up in the town of Baidoa, 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu.
The U.N. Security Council failed for a second day on Wednesday to agree on a statement calling for an immediate cease-fire in Somalia because Qatar insisted the council demand the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces.
The 14 other council members refused to demand the immediate pullout of Ethiopian and other troops, diplomats said.
Islamic fighters abandon Jowhar
On Wednesday, Ethiopian and Somali government troops drove Islamic fighters out of Jowhar, the last major town on the northern road to Mogadishu. As troops entered Jowhar, an independent radio station began blasting Western music, which the militias had banned.
In Baidoa, government officials introduced journalists to a dozen soldiers who said they were forced to fight on behalf of the militias. “I was in school before the war, but the Islamic courts forced me into their army,” said Mohamed Hussein Mohamed, 15.
The U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday it was “particularly concerned about reports of civilians, including children, being forcibly recruited to join the fighting.”
In the past, refugees from Somalia had complained of forced enlistment by the Islamic Courts Union, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said in Geneva.
Mogadishu residents close to Abgal clan leaders said those leaders were considering whether to drop their support for the Islamic movement and side with the government, in an effort to avoid a struggle for the capital that could cause extensive casualties.
The residents discussed the issue on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from Islamic militias, who want to rule Somalia by the Quran.
Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari confirmed that talks for the peaceful surrender of Mogadishu were under way.
“Elders, scholars and civil society members have contacted us and they told us that they don’t need bombardment or attack,” Dinari said. “We will not attack Mogadishu. ... Islamic courts militias are already on the run and we hope that Mogadishu will fall to our hands without firing a shot.”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said he aims to severely damage the courts’ military capabilities and allow both sides to return to peace talks on as equals.
But one Islamic courts official said his forces were preparing for a new phase in their battle.
“Our snakes of defense were let loose, now they are ready to bite the enemy everywhere in Somalia,” said Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley. He did not elaborate, but some Islamic leaders have threatened guerrilla warfare including suicide bombings in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
Kenneth Menkhaus, professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina, said the war will likely be “prolonged, inconclusive, low-intensity and asymmetrical.”
“This is a war that will not end any time soon,” he said. “Neither side has the capacity to defeat the other.”
Somalia’s complex clan system has been the basis of politics and identity here for centuries. But fighting between clans has prevented Somalia from having an effective government since 1991. That’s when clan-based warlords overthrew a dictator and turned on one another.
Competition for control of Mogadishu since 1991 has involved the Abgal and Habr Gadir clans, who joined to support the Islamic council earlier this year.
If Abgal elders switch sides, probably in return for key government posts, urban warfare between the Abgal and Habr Gadir clans seems certain to resume.
The Islamic courts tried to supplant the influence of the clans by appealing to Somalis as Muslims. Many Somalis were grateful for the order the courts’ militias imposed.
Dinari, the Somali government spokesman, said soldiers were heading toward the small village of Balad, about 18 miles from Mogadishu. Mohammed Abdi Hassan, a resident of the village, told The Associated Press by phone that the Islamic fighters had fled, leaving no one in control.
But many also chafed at the movement’s strict enforcement of Islamic codes.
“Since the Islamic courts have taken control, people are walking instead of hiring a taxi,” said Hussein Mudde, a taxi driver in Mogadishu. “They don’t have money because the Islamic courts closed the cinemas and music halls. Poets and artists and performers have been jobless.”
Meles, the Ethiopian prime minister, said Tuesday he had been given unconfirmed reports that as many as 1,000 people had died and 3,000 were wounded since the fighting began on Saturday.
The Red Cross reported 850 people injured at hospitals supported by the relief agency in Mogadishu and Baidoa, but had no figure for fatalities.
The U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday it was readying staff, trucks and emergency relief items in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia for up to 50,000 fleeing Somalis.
The agency said it had received reports of thousands of displaced civilians within Somalia fleeing the fighting.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.