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Somalia's embattled president expected to resign

NAIROBI, Kenya — The embattled president of Somalia, Abdullahi Yusuf, is expected to resign after a bitter struggle for control of his country's interim government, Western diplomats said Wednesday.

Yusuf's departure, which could become official within days, would remove a major obstacle to a United Nations-backed peace process for Somalia, which has been floundering as Yusuf clashed with the prime minister and Islamist insurgents threatened to seize the capital, Mogadishu.

Yusuf's spokesman, Hussein Mohamed Mahmoud, said the president would address lawmakers Saturday in the parliamentary seat of Baidoa. "The president hasn't made any decision," Mahmoud said, but several Western diplomats said that Yusuf's resignation was imminent.

Yusuf, who's in his 70s, has come under growing pressure from African and Western leaders for the failure of his interim government, in place for nearly five years, to bring stability to Somalia, which has been in the grip of a bloody, clan-based civil war for nearly two decades.

A powerful Islamist-led insurgency, including fighters who U.S. officials claim are allied with al Qaida, now controls almost all of southern Somalia, except for Baidoa and key government installations in Mogadishu.

Violence and a worsening drought have fueled a humanitarian crisis that relief agencies describe as the gravest in Africa, and the U.N. estimates that 3.2 million Somalis — half the country — need urgent help. Pirates off the northern Somali coast are taking advantage of the anarchy to terrorize the international shipping industry.

Amid all this, Yusuf last week tried to fire his archrival, Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, who's been pushing a peace deal to bring opposition groups into the government and dilute Yusuf's power.

East African regional leaders threatened Yusuf with sanctions and some Somali lawmakers started impeachment proceedings. Yusuf appointed another prime minister anyway, although no one outside Yusuf's inner circle recognized him.

On Wednesday, the new prime minister resigned, saying that he didn't want to be an obstacle to peace. Western diplomats who follow Somalia from neighboring Kenya, because Mogadishu is unsafe, said that Yusuf realized he'd run out of options.

"He's been a spoiler for some time now," said a U.S. official, who like others declined to be named because of diplomatic protocol. "It's time for him to go. He understands that now."

The U.S. official denied reports in the Somali news media that Jendayi Frazer, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, had told Yusuf to resign in a one-on-one meeting Monday in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The official described the encounter as a "standard meeting," held at Yusuf's request.

Western diplomats and Somali opposition officials didn't hide their relief at Yusuf's likely departure. A veteran politician, Yusuf long has been a divisive figure in Somalia. In a country where clan relationships are paramount, he refused to reach out to rival groups, instead concentrating power in a close-knit group of security officials that some observers began to label "Yusuf boys."

In recent months, officials in Ethiopia, which had helped bring his government to power, also had become disenchanted with him. Many Somalis think that Yusuf invited the Ethiopians to invade, a decision that fueled the insurgency and produced near-daily roadside bombings and mortar attacks in Mogadishu.

"There's no negative" from Yusuf's resignation, one Western diplomat said.

If Yusuf resigns, Somalia's parliament by law must appoint a successor within 30 days.

Some experts see an opening for a moderate Islamist leader, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, who led a federation of Islamic courts that briefly controlled Mogadishu in 2006, to assume a greater role in government. Yusuf refused to negotiate with Islamist extremists, referring to them as "terrorists," but U.S. and other Western officials have called Ahmed, a former schoolteacher, a possible key player in a new government.

"No one is luckier than Sheik Sharif from this decision," said Nur Adde Nur, a member of the executive committee of Ahmed's opposition party, based in neighboring Djibouti.

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