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Somalia's Islamist militias may be plotting a comeback

MOGADISHU, Somalia—Barely two months after they were toppled by a U.S.-backed military operation, militant Islamist leaders and hundreds of fighters have returned to the country's capital and are quietly preparing to make a comeback, according to militia members and Somali community leaders.

An Ethiopian invasion in late December drove the Council of Islamic Courts out of Mogadishu, but according to U.S. diplomats, Ethiopian forces captured few fighters and killed none of the top Islamist leaders. Since then, many of the senior leaders, who the Bush administration says have ties to al-Qaida, have returned to the city, militia members said.

Several hundred fighters are now living in Mogadishu, where they dress in plain clothes and work day jobs as cafeteria workers and traders but meet regularly with superior officers and tribal elders, according to fighters from three neighborhoods in south Mogadishu. The fighters and their tribal supporters said they maintain an underground arsenal of automatic rifles, grenades and other weapons.

In Washington, a U.S. official said McClatchy's reporting from Mogadishu is "basically on the mark," and that although it's "hard to affix a number" to the returning fighters, the Islamists' return is "cause for concern."

"There is reason to believe that some have returned to Mogadishu and they may be trying to reconstitute themselves," said the official, who couldn't be identified because the reporting from Somalia is classified.

Civic leaders confirmed the accounts about the Islamist fighters. "They are reorganizing themselves, and no one can stop that," said Abdullahi Shirwa, a prominent secular peace activist. "They have a lot of support."

The re-emergence of the Islamists would be another setback to the Bush administration's efforts to block the creation of an Islamist regime in the Horn of Africa. Although the majority of Somalis believe that the Islamic Courts' political agenda is law and order—not terrorism—U.S. officials have charged that the movement's leaders sheltered three al-Qaida members who've carried out terrorist attacks on American and Israeli targets in East Africa in the past decade.

Somalia's transitional government blames the Islamists for a growing insurgency that's led to the deaths of dozens of civilians and forced some 10,000 residents to flee Mogadishu. Islamist fighters have denied launching the attacks but strongly oppose the government, which rode into Mogadishu on the heels of the Ethiopians.

The Bush administration views the Ethiopian campaign as a success because it swiftly removed the Islamist political leadership from power. But because militia commanders ordered their men to retreat rather than fight the Ethiopians, outside analysts believe they suffered few losses.

U.S. forces launched two airstrikes on southern Somalia in January, the first of which killed eight militiamen. But neither claimed the lives of any of the al-Qaida targets or the top Courts leaders, U.S. officials have said.

Meanwhile, the factors that propelled the Islamist movement to power last summer—Mogadishu's all-too-familiar routine of mortar attacks, scattered gun battles and general insecurity—have returned. By imposing strict religious law during their six-month reign, the Courts provided a respite from the anarchy and clan-based violence that have shadowed the city since 1991.

"We made the city peaceful, but today you can see how everything is different," said Ahmed Ali, a 36-year-old fighter who joined the militias after his parents were killed in a shootout at a roadblock in 1999.

In interviews last week, Ali and two other fighters—members of the radical wing known as Hisb'ul Shabaab, or "Party of Youth"—said they were under orders not to carry out attacks. But they said that influential elders from Mogadishu's dominant Hawiye clan, angry at government policies, have begun to reconstitute small groups of militiamen who now meet secretly across the city.

While the Islamists' political wing is in disarray, outside analysts say Shabaab's core leadership remains intact and that Mogadishu's chaos allows clandestine cells to function almost undisturbed.

"The loss of its safe haven will not necessarily spell Shabaab's end," the International Crisis Group research agency said in a recent report.

"The network is still there. We are all in contact often," Ahmed Abdullah Hassan, 29, the outspoken leader of a small group of fighters, told a visiting American reporter. "I am telling you, we could be very near to fighting government troops."

Some doubt that the Islamists are ready to take up arms. For one thing, the movement's supreme leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, who's on U.S. and international terrorist watch lists, and top Shabaab leader, Adan Hashi Ayro, an Afghanistan-trained jihadist, are believed to be in hiding outside Mogadishu. Analysts believe that Ayro was injured or possibly killed in one of the U.S. airstrikes.

Others say it's too soon, with thousands of Ethiopian troops still in the country and an African Union peacekeeping force due to arrive soon.

But neither Somalia's patchwork security forces nor the African peacekeepers have the manpower or will to go after the militants or their weapons.

U.S. officials want interim President Abdullahi Yusuf to make peace with moderate Islamists and perhaps bring some of them into his administration. People in Somalia say that the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Kenya helped ensure safe passage for one leading moderate, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, to Nairobi last month, when he met privately with Ambassador Michael Ranneberger before fleeing into exile in Yemen.

So far Yusuf refuses to negotiate with the Islamists. Some Somalis believe that could hasten the Islamists' resurgence and possibly draw in more fighters from Somalia and abroad.

"If the situation remains the way it is, that would bring an opportunity for the Islamic Courts to become an effective, armed opposition," said Ahmed Abdisalam Adan, a managing partner of the HornAfrik media corporation. "In the absence of more credible institutions, they can prevail."

If the Bush administration can't persuade Yusuf to negotiate, it would mark the second political setback in a year for U.S. policy in Somalia, which has been a trouble spot since the deaths of 18 U.S. servicemen in a 1993 Mogadishu street battle that was depicted in the movie "Black Hawk Down."

Last year, the CIA covertly funded a coalition of Mogadishu warlords against the Islamists, which only increased popular opposition to the warlords and failed after a few months.

Mohammed Afrah Qanyare, a leader of that coalition and formerly the city's most powerful warlord, told McClatchy Newspapers that while workaday Somalis had grown tired of the Islamists' legal strictures, the militias probably have the power to retake the country.

"The only way they can come back," Qanyare said, "is by force."

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(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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