NAIROBI, Kenya—More than three months after a federation of Islamic clerics came to power in Somalia, the group, as expected, has established strict religious rule in the capital, Mogadishu, and the wide swath of the country it controls.
But Somalis, diplomats and regional analysts say the group also has shown a willingness to negotiate, and that that has eased fears that its rule would turn the anarchic country into another training ground and safe haven for Islamic terrorists.
"There was a feeling in the international community that the Taliban was taking over and there would be a big fight over Somalia in the region," said Mario Raffaeli, Italy's special envoy to Somalia.
"But three months later there is no war; there is dialogue. So I have to be more optimistic."
In recent weeks, the Somali Islamists have banned commercial activity during prayer times, closed movie houses and radio stations for "indecent" programming and flogged dozens of people for using marijuana.
But they've also engaged in two rounds of talks with Somalia's transitional government, a powerless but internationally backed body based 150 miles outside Mogadishu in the provincial town of Baidoa. Last week the two sides agreed to form a unified national-security force and to meet next month to discuss the thornier issue of sharing political power.
Some diplomats in the region said it was a sign that the Islamists recognized the authority of the shaky government, formed at a regional conference in Kenya two years ago, and weren't bent on extremism.
On Thursday, the African Union endorsed a plan to send an 8,000-strong regional peacekeeping force into Somalia by the end of the month. The mission is intended to back the government, which has no military force of its own, but Islamist leaders denounced it as an invasion.
The Islamists' backers say the peacekeeping mission could jeopardize the negotiations and, if the Islamists resist, plunge Somalia back into mayhem.
Others are less certain that time has clarified the Islamists' goals. The inner workings of the movement—which grew out of a loose federation of religious courts, some radical, others more moderate—remain a mystery to outsiders.
The courts came to power in June after months of street fighting between their militias and those loyal to Mogadishu's secular warlords, who many think were backed by the CIA in a covert antiterrorism operation. U.S. officials haven't confirmed the reports.
In the ensuing weeks, as Islamist militias seized more towns, troops from neighboring Ethiopia—an American ally in the war on terrorism—reportedly crossed into Somalia to defend the government. Fears of a regional war spiked, but the Islamists pulled back.
Since June the courts have reorganized politically. Their moderate chairman, Sheik Sherif Ahmed, was given a lower position as the head of an executive branch that answers to a decision-making body called a Shura.
Heading the Shura is Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who led the extremist al Ittihad al Islaami movement in the 1990s and whom the United States and United Nations list as a terrorist.
Aweys, who's denied links to al-Qaida, keeps a low profile. Ahmed, 40, is the face of the movement—his signature appears on the group's occasional public statements—but experts say it's impossible to know which wing is in charge.
"There isn't too much transparency," said Festus Aboagye, the head of the Training for Peace Program at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies, a research center. "One is not in a position to verify whether the statements are coming from Aweys or Sherif."
What's clear is that the Islamists have restored law and order to what was long considered the most dangerous city in the world. They've removed the warlords' network of extortionate roadblocks and reopened Mogadishu's airport and seaport.
"Wherever the security forces of the courts (are) controlling, the communities are experiencing tremendous security improvements," Ahmed said in a statement last week.
"It's a radical change," Zakaria Haji Abdi, a member of parliament who often visits Mogadishu, said in an interview in Nairobi.
In Mogadishu's Bermuda district, once a no-man's land, Abdi said, "you can walk around at midnight, wave your cell phone, no one touches you. It's much more peaceful."
Opponents say heavy-handed Islamic law will bring a backlash in a country where most people practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam.
"This is not what we were raised to believe as Muslims," said Mohamed Ali Nour, the Somali government's envoy to Kenya. "This is a Taliban-style agenda."
"Yesterday the West was talking about lawlessness in Somalia. Today everything is better because the Islamic courts have taken over," Abdi said. "Let us give these people a chance."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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