Bypassing Somalia's weak government, a key lawmaker signed an agreement Saturday with a powerful Islamic militia to explore ways of sharing power.
The government denounced the initiative by Parliamentary Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, saying he was not acting on behalf of the administration.
"The speaker is functioning outside his authority and has no legal basis for what he is doing," Information Minister Ali Ahmed Jama Jengeli told The Associated Press.
Aden said he was trying to break a stalemate between the U.N.-backed interim government, which has little authority on the ground, and the Council of Islamic Courts, which controls most of southern Somalia. Last month, he brokered his own preliminary peace agreement with the courts.
Several peace initiatives between the government and the courts have failed, with the two sides blaming each other for the deadlock, and fears have mounted about a war that could engulf Somalia's Horn of Africa neighbors.
Aden released a joint statement with the leader of the Islamic movement, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, calling for the formation of two committees "to study ways of power sharing between the Islamic courts and the transitional federal government."
The statement also called for the resumption of peace talks and a pledge not to allow foreign interference in Somalia's affairs.
Concerns in Ethiopia
Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation, fears the emergence of a neighboring Islamic state and has acknowledged sending military advisers to help the Somalian government. That support is a sore point for the Islamic council.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has denied sending a fighting force to Somalia.
But Friday, witnesses said hundreds of Ethiopian troops arrived to protect Somalia's government as the Islamic militia massed near Baidoa, the only town controlled by the government.
A confidential U.N. report obtained last month by the AP said 6,000 to 8,000 Ethiopian troops were near Somalia's border with Ethiopia.
On Saturday, Meles said he expected legislators to back a resolution giving him authority to use military force against Somali extremists if they attack Ethiopia.
"In the event that we fail our peaceful quest, naturally we reserve the right to defend ourselves in the face of flagrant violation of our sovereignty and national security," he said.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, carving much of the country into armed camps ruled by violence and clan law.
The government was established two years ago with the support of the U.N. to serve as a transitional body to help Somalia emerge from anarchy. But the leadership, which includes some warlords linked to the violence of the past, wields no real power outside Baidoa.
The Islamic Council, meanwhile, has been steadily gaining ground since seizing the capital, Mogadishu, in June. The United States has accused the group of sheltering suspects in the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which it denies.