NAIROBI, Kenya — A major offensive by Islamic rebels has brought Somalia's internationally backed government close to collapse and renewed the possibility that a militant Islamist regime that allegedly has ties to al Qaida could seize control of the East African nation.
That would be a devastating blow to U.S. counter-terrorism and anti-piracy efforts in East Africa, where al Qaida operatives bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. American intelligence officials accuse the rebels' spiritual leader, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, of helping to shelter suspects in those attacks, and since 2007 U.S. forces have launched airstrikes at terrorist targets in Somalia.
After a week of heavy mortar and rocket attacks that have left at least 135 people dead and sent tens of thousands fleeing, the insurgents have moved to within a half-mile of the hilltop presidential palace in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, which is being guarded by African Union peacekeepers with tanks and armored vehicles.
The Islamists, reportedly joined by hundreds of foreign fighters, didn't move on the palace Friday and almost certainly would lose a ground confrontation with the better-armed, 4,300-man peacekeeping force. Still, Aweys, a veteran hard-liner who U.S. officials charge is linked to al Qaida, vowed to topple the government and institute "the Islamic state of Somalia."
Less than four months after a new, moderate Islamic government formed in a country that's been in the grip of civil war since 1991, the latest multimillion-dollar international plan to stabilize Somalia appears to be in tatters.
Despite a beefed-up African Union peacekeeping force and a U.N.-backed reconciliation effort, the moderate president, Sheik Sharif Ahmed, has failed to win the support of hard-liners such as Aweys or the powerful insurgent group al Shabaab, which the State Department has labeled a terrorist organization.
"The prospect of (Ahmed's) government collapsing is real," said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group, a policy research organization.
The U.N. refugee agency said that this week's clashes had sent some 30,000 people fleeing and overwhelmed hospitals with casualties. Some Mogadishu residents have been trapped in their homes for days, unable to flee street battles raging around their neighborhoods, the agency said.
The fighting marks a dramatic reversal for Aweys and Ahmed, who were allies in 2006 when Islamist militias took over Mogadishu. The septuagenarian Aweys, the henna-bearded father of the country's modern Islamist movement, plucked Ahmed, then a little-known schoolteacher, to be the moderate face of the new regime.
When a U.S.-backed invasion by Somalia's archenemy Ethiopia ousted the Islamists six months later, Aweys fled into exile. Ahmed, to the hard-liners' disgust, formed an opposition group that reached out to Western officials.
Since he became president, Ahmed has tried to placate his rivals by agreeing to institute Islamic law, or Shariah. Aweys' long-awaited return to Mogadishu last month raised hopes of reconciliation, but in a speech two days later he accused Ahmed of being a U.S.-Ethiopian client and called the African Union force — the only thing standing between the government and the insurgents — "a bacteria" to be flushed out.
"We are not going to accept what the international community is forcing on us," Aweys said Friday. "We are going to make our own government."
In a country that's deeply suspicious of foreign intervention, analysts said, the United States and other Western nations underestimated how easily their support for Ahmed could taint the soft-spoken young president.
Experts said that about 100 government soldiers had defected in recent weeks, partly because army salaries hadn't been paid and partly because of fears that Ahmed would be toppled.
"The extremists see (Ahmed) as a sellout," Abdi said. "They call him 'the man of the American Islam.' He's not practicing the harsh brand of Islam they practice, so they want his blood."
Western officials also appeared to misjudge Aweys, who, despite more than two years in exile, landed in Mogadishu and seemed swiftly to unite disparate insurgent groups in a well-organized campaign that's sealed off the capital's three arterial roads.
Somalia has grabbed world attention in recent months with the surge in pirate attacks from its lawless shores. In one way, Abdi said, the pirates could have precipitated the current crisis: After countries pledged more than $200 million last month for security in Somalia, in part to fight piracy, the insurgents may have decided to strike before the government and the African Union got the money.
Western intelligence officials think that the insurgent groups — particularly al Shabaab, which has employed al Qaida-style roadside bombings and suicide attacks — are backed with money and arms from Arab countries and from Ethiopia's blood rival, Eritrea.
The top U.N. diplomat for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said Friday that 280 to 300 foreigners were fighting alongside the insurgents. Somali government officials say the foreigners come from countries such as Afghanistan and Chechnya and have trained local fighters in explosives and tactics.
(Special correspondent Ahmednor Mohamed contributed to this report from Mogadishu, Somalia.)
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