MOGADISHU, Somalia—When he was 10, Abdullahi Nur began peddling machine guns and grenade launchers from a rickety stall on the edge of the Bakara Market, where the largest arms bazaar in Africa is flush with dollars from warring militias in this outlaw city.
Over the years, Nur watched anxiously as Islamist factions tried to bring order to the dangerous capital, cracking down on drug traffickers, alcohol sellers, prostitutes and cinema owners. Nur worried that his lucrative trade would be next.
But now, at 25, even Nur is weary of the mayhem. He said he'd close shop if ordered to by the Islamic Courts Union, whose militia has brought a tenuous calm to Mogadishu after its surprise defeat of U.S.-backed warlords June 5.
"If the Islamists ban the sale of guns, we'll do it if it means 100 percent security here," Nur said with an air of resignation. "I can find other work."
To many Somalis, the Islamist takeover was the natural culmination of a religious movement that took root with the withdrawal of international forces in 1995 and blossomed as residents turned to faith in the absence of any government.
It's also a backlash against the United States, which everyone in Mogadishu believes bankrolled the warlords to carry out an American proxy war against terrorists that resulted in kidnappings of religious figures and false accusations that innocents were affiliated with al-Qaida.
"I used to close for five or 10 minutes every day because of the fighting, but now it is quiet," said Ali Sheikh Mahmoud, 45, who sells household goods in another section of the Bakara Market. "We are all Muslims. We agree with the Islamist movement for now, but we don't know what the future will bring."
The Bush administration, which has never confirmed that it's funded the warlords, also is worried about Mogadishu's future, suspecting that its new rulers are harboring some of the world's most-wanted fugitives, including at least three known al-Qaida terrorists.
On Thursday, a U.S.-organized "Contact Group" of American, European and African diplomats met in New York to coordinate policy toward Somalia. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration still needed more information. "We want to have a better assessment of this group and the situation on the ground," he said.
For now, Mogadishu residents said, the Islamic Courts is a vast improvement over the chaos of the last 15 years.
"Deep down, we're not sure 100 percent what's behind the Islamic Courts. But this is a new revolution for the people of Mogadishu, and for now they have full support," said Abdelkadir Mohamed Nur, a Somali-American businessman and the chairman of the city's main port, which employs 10,000 people.
He and other community leaders said the rise of conservative Islam in Mogadishu began when international groups fled the city but didn't truly flourish until about three years ago. By that time, this coastal city—which once boasted fine Italian architecture and bustling country clubs—had degenerated into a crumbling, barren battleground for gunmen from competing clans.
With no government, little foreign aid and neither law nor order, life in Mogadishu became a harrowing test of survival. Famine and fighting created Africa's largest group of internally displaced people—250,000 of them in Mogadishu alone, the U.N. estimates, packed into squalid camps that are breeding grounds for disease and crime.
With the city too perilous for Western aid workers—the nearest U.N. presence is more than 30 miles away—Islamic charities from Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf nations filled the void. Today, most schools in the capital teach in Arabic rather than Somali, using imported curricula that include mandatory religious instruction. The charities also established clinics and sponsored street cleanings.
The habits of their wealthy gulf benefactors seeped into the daily lives of traditionally secular Somalis. Men grew their beards and shortened their robes, considered signs of piety by some Muslims. A growing number of women adopted Saudi Arabia's full veil, which reveals only the eyes, but tweaked it to local tastes by using vivid turquoise and purples rather than the customary black.
"I wear this because of my own feelings, not out of imitation," said Kawthar Ali, 17, who wore a black veil, polka-dotted scarf and violet cloak to go shopping earlier this month.
Somalis also became increasingly anti-American, community leaders said. A Somali entrepreneur opened the Ayman al-Zawahri cultural center, named after al-Qaida's Egyptian second in command, though in recent months it was shuttered and Zawahri's last name disappeared from the colorful facade. And workaday Somalis were incensed at their depiction in the film "Black Hawk Down."
Clans set up courts governed by Islamic law to bring some semblance of order to the city. Last year, with just $4,000 in donations, the clans formed the Islamic Courts Union to deal better with the abductions and slayings that intensified in the vicious war between the U.S.-backed warlords and their Islamist opponents, according to several Somalis involved in the project.
They installed Sheik Sherif Ahmed—a geography teacher from a prominent clan and a long line of respected clerics—as chairman. Immediately, his heavily armed militia set out to control the streets, taking particular aim at the moorayaan, the freelance gunmen sometimes hired for the warlords' counterterrorism operations.
"I saw so many problems some people were bringing to the Muslims, especially our religious figures being captured and sold to the Americans, and that's what inspired me to join," said Abdel Fatah Ali, 25, a gunman in the Islamic Courts militia whose older brother died in the battle for Mogadishu. "The day the warlords were ejected, so many people were celebrating. I felt proud."
The courts also have imposed restrictions on the personal lives of ordinary Somalis.
Several Mogadishu residents, who asked that their names not be published for fear of retaliation, recalled a hand-grenade attack that closed a brothel, written threats to blow up cinemas that screened "Bollywood" films from India, and smuggling rings that brought the wayward children of Somali families abroad back home for religious and cultural indoctrination.
It's become hard to find expensive gin from Ethiopia and "calaq," cheaper Somali moonshine, they said. The Islamists also frown on cigarettes and the pervasive chewing of khat, an addictive plant with stimulant properties.
One hotel owner said Islamists warned him not to hold his annual New Year's party this year. When he persisted, a rocket-propelled grenade interrupted the festivities. Next year, he said, there'll be no party.
To many Somalis struggling to raise families in their anarchic city, a pious lifestyle is a small price to pay for security.
At Madina Hospital, the number of patients admitted with gunshot wounds has dropped steadily since the Islamist ascension, hospital administrator Ali Mualem Mohamed said. At the height of the fighting earlier this month, he said, the 65-bed hospital was flooded with 170 patients, and all but a handful were civilians caught in the crossfire.
As of last week, 54 patients remained, including a 10-year-old girl whose shoulder bone was shattered by a stray bullet, a 40-year-old mother whose chest was filled with shrapnel from a mortar round and an 18-year-old man whose brother accidentally shot him with the rifle the family keeps at home for protection. Mohamed said he welcomed the quiet.
Classes have resumed at the Alpha School, where Omar Mahmoud, 42, struggles to teach civics to teenagers who've never known a government. Students might even take their finals on time now that the violence has subsided.
But there are changes. More girls are turning up in all-encompassing veils and a group of boys dropped out, explaining that they were off to fight for Islam.
Mahmoud said he had serious doubts about the Islamic Courts, but that he was desperate for any group that could prevent his two young children from growing up with the question his students put forth every year.
"Always they ask me, `What is a government?' It is only a theory for them," Mahmoud said. "I tell them, `One day you'll have one, and you'll play an important role.' We're just pacifying them, trying to encourage them."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SOMALIA
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060615 SOMALIA clans
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