updated 3/29/2010 1:53:40 PM ET 2010-03-29T17:53:40

Hundreds of women and children marched through Somalia's capital Monday to protest the destruction of tombs of Somali clerics, some a century old, by al-Qaida-linked militants wielding sledgehammers and pickaxes.

It was a rare demonstration against al-Shabab in a city mainly controlled by the extremist group. Protesters chanted "Down with al-Shabab," as dozens of armed government troops kept watch and occasionally fired shots into the air.

The hardline al-Shabab militants, who control much of central and southern Somalia, have been targeting tombs of moderate Sufis, destroying dozens of burial places and attacking historic monuments and churches in the past couple of years. Al-Shabab has prohibited the decoration of tombs and does not want them to be idolized.

"They have been worshipping the remains of the dead bodies in tombs and that is why we want to eradicate them, because there is nothing to worship or to ask help from but Allah," said Ali Mohamed Husein, the head of al-Shabab in Mogadishu.

Al-Shabab recently began targeting tombs in the capital, sparking the ire of Mogadishu residents who were shocked when graves of venerated clerics were dug up during the last week.

"Al-Shabab's wicked actions are not acceptable. We call for a holy war against them," said Sheik Somow of the moderate Islamist group Ahlu Sunna Waljama, which recently signed a power-sharing deal with the Somali government. "We never worship tombs but only consecrate the dead body of our religious fathers and teachers. They are those who spread the religion peacefully but this radical group has another agenda from terrorism-based ideologies."

Public executions and amputations
Al-Shabab espouses a strict interpretation of Islam, and has carried out public executions and amputations. Many Somalis chafe at al-Shabab's actions and orders because most observe a relatively moderate form of Islam that allows the veneration of respected saints.

Al-Shabab's targeting of tombs echoes attacks carried out by Taliban militants on religious symbols in Afghanistan that were unrelated to Islam. Militants in spring 2001 destroyed two large Buddha statues carved into the cliffs of Bamiyan, raising an outcry around the world.

The Somali militants are using hoes, shovels and pickaxes to destroy the tombs. For bigger structures — ones that look like small buildings with verses of the Quran written on their walls — the rebels tie a chain around the tomb and drag it with a pickup truck.

The demonstrators on Monday also protested the influx of foreign fighters to Somalia, said Mohyadin Hassan Afrah, who heads Mogadishu's civil society umbrella group that helped organize the march. Foreign fighters, coming primarily from Pakistan, Yemen and North Africa, have flocked to Somalia to back the country's myriad Islamic groups since 2006.

Monday's protest was not the first against al-Shabab. Late last year, about 100 students rallied after a suicide bomber attacked a graduation ceremony in the capital that killed more than 20 people, including four government ministers, doctors, teachers and students.

Somalia has been mired in anarchy since 1991, when warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other to plunge the country into nearly two decades of seemingly endless chaos.

Officials of Somalia's weak government have been saying for months that government troops will soon carry out an offensive against al-Shabab in an effort to expand the government's area of control.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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