Islamic militia leaders dispatched scores of fighters in jeeps mounted with machine guns Monday, witnesses said, describing apparent preparations for a battle to push U.S.-backed secular warlords from their last stronghold in southern Somalia.
The fundamentalists who control the capital, Mogadishu, sent the militiamen to Jowhar, 56 miles to the northeast, witnesses said.
The Islamic militiamen took control of Mogadishu last week after months of fighting that left more than 330 people dead, many of them civilians.
Mogadishu has been relatively calm since the Islamic militias took control. For its residents, relief over an end to fighting has mixed with uncertainty about the intentions of their new rulers, who have vowed to install an Islamic government and court system.
U.S. officials have said they supported the warlords’ fight against Islamic leaders accused of harboring three al-Qaida leaders indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
On Saturday, Islamic militiamen broke up World Cup viewing parties by firing in the air and cutting electricity to theaters. Sheikh Abdukadir Ali Omar, whose Islamic Courts Union controls the fighters, said that was a way to prevent “corrupting the children in this Muslim community.”
With the retreat of the secular warlords, the main counterweight to the Islamic Courts Union is Somalia’s weak transitional government, formed last year.
No government for 15 years
Somalia has been without effective government since 1991, when largely clan-based warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another. Now many of those warlords are members of the transitional government, while the Islamic leaders portray themselves as a force capable of restoring order and setting Somalia on a new path.
Northeastern Somalia is under the control of a semiautonomous government and has seen relative peace in the past 10 years. Central Somalia is not controlled by any single group.
The transitional government has made little progress toward asserting authority in the country. It sits in the southern city of Baidoa, because Mogadishu is considered unsafe.
Lawmakers in the transitional parliament began debating whether to allow in peacekeepers from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a group of seven East African nations, a proposal the government has been considering for months.
The militia group’s chairman told the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Somali service that Islamic militias would oppose any peacekeepers.
The regional group is to meet Tuesday in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to discuss developments in Somalia.
On Friday, the United States said that it had invited European and African countries to a meeting in New York this week to discuss how to deal with gains by the Islamic militia in Somalia.