updated 7/23/2008 2:23:09 PM ET 2008-07-23T18:23:09

A fundamentalist Muslim suspected by the U.S. of collaborating with al-Qaida has taken over as head of Somalia's exiled opposition movement, pushing out a relative moderate who tried to strike a peace deal with the government, officials said Wednesday.

Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys — who denies any links to terrorism — said the opposition voted out the former chairman, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, because he agreed to a U.N.-brokered agreement with Somalia's weak administration last month.

"From now on I will be the leader," Aweys said by telephone from Eritrea, where he and the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia are based. He added that the alliance decided to remove Ahmed "because of his misuse of the leadership."

Ahmed denounced the decision to remove him.

"I only performed my duty, which is to help my people and my country get a lasting peace by all means," Ahmed said from Djibouti, where he met with government leaders last month.

Ahmed and the government had agreed to end months of violence and agreed in principle to the eventual withdrawal of Ethiopian troops supporting Somalia's fragile government. But the deal has had no effect on the ground in this bloodstained country, where a vicious insurgency has killed thousands of civilians since 2007.

Opposition spokesman Zakariye Haji Mohamoud said more than 100 out of 191 members of the group's central committee voted against Ahmed on Tuesday night.

The Somali government said it will not comment until after a Cabinet meeting Thursday.

'The Youth'
It remains to be seen whether Ahmed will fight for his job or gain the support of insurgents on the ground.

It is unlikely al-Shabab, the military wing of Somalia's Islamic movement responsible for countless attacks, would follow his lead.

The State Department considers al-Shabab, or "The Youth," a terrorist organization and has long been concerned this lawless country could become a haven for al-Qaida.

Arid, impoverished Somalia has not had a functioning central government since warlords overthrew a socialist dictator in 1991 then turned their clan-based militias on each other.

This is not the first time Aweys and Ahmed have jockeyed for power. Both were top leaders of the country's Council of Islamic Courts, which ruled the capital and much of southern Somalia for about six months in 2006 before troops from neighboring Ethiopia arrived to push them out.

Aweys, who led the group at the height of its rule, advocated a strict Islamic government to end more than a decade of anarchy in Somalia. Ahmed was moderate in comparison, softening his anti-Western rhetoric and agreeing to talk to the government.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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