May 2, 2007 (MOGADISHU) — Mogadishu’s new mayor isn’t new to town _ he is one of the country’s most feared and ruthless warlords. His new role may have as much to do with the calm Mogadishu has seen in recent days as the government’s claimed victory over insurgents with alleged links to al-Qaida.
Mohamed Dheere, who has long cooperated with the CIA in grabbing al-Qaida operatives off the streets of Mogadishu, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the "time of terrorists is over."
"We will crack down on terrorists and bandits in the capital," Dheere said, just days after President Abdullahi Yusuf appointed him mayor.
While his readiness to fight terrorism makes him appealing to the United States and Ethiopia, which support the Somali government, his use of clan warfare and indiscriminate violence over the last 16 years makes him unpopular with regular Somalis.
But considering Somalia’s dizzying array of clan alliances, Dheere’s appointment may be key to ending the violence in Somalia by appeasing clan interests that have driven much of the fighting.
Clan rivalries as well as the Islamic insurgency have been at the heart of much of the recent bloodshed, which aid groups say killed 1,670 people between March 12 and April 26 and sent more than 340,000 of Mogadishu’s 2 million residents fleeing for safety.
Hawiye elders, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, told AP recently they do not necessarily support the Islamic extremists who have vowed to launch an Iraq-style insurgency. But until Yusuf agrees to share power, they said, the international community cannot expect them to exert their authority to stop both the clan and Islamic militias.
Yusuf, it seems, heard the elders’ call. In recent days, three Hawiye members _ all former warlords _ have been listed for top posts. Dheere’s appointment satisfies a branch of the Hawiye known as the Abgal. Abdi Qeybdiid, a member of the Habr Gedir branch, is the new deputy police chief. And Mohamed Qanyare Afrah of the Mursade branch is widely believed to be on the cusp of getting a Cabinet posting.
Warlords like Dheere, most of them clan-based, ruled this African nation of 8 million after overthrowing longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. They divided the country into rival fiefdoms, plunging the country into chaos.
An Islamic militant group called the Council of Islamic Courts, which seized power last year, succeeded for about six months in blanketing clan beneath Islam. The militants brought a semblance of order to the city for the first time in years, in part by driving out the warlords’ militias.
But the Islamists were ousted over the New Year by Somali and Ethiopian troops, with the help of U.S. special forces who have long accused them of having ties to al-Qaida. The Somali government is now trying to reunite the capital, but is struggling to overcome an insurgency that has sparked some of the worst fighting in 15 years.
Despite the government’s recent overtures to clans, conflicts remain, particularly between Yusuf’s Darod clan and the Habr Gedir, which are traditional enemies. Habr Gedir elders accuse Yusuf of favoring his own clansmen and recruiting only Darod into the new Somali army.
Yusuf was not available for comment Wednesday, and other top officials refused to discuss the issue with the AP.
Dheere _ whose name roughly translates as "the tall one" _ has a reputation for being one of the most violent and ruthless of warlords. He used his militia to help frustrate the Transitional National Government formed in 2000 and was considered a potential spoiler in the formation of the current Transitional Federal Government in 2004, threatening to use force against the new government if he was not given a key Cabinet position.
Dheere also was the leader of a self-proclaimed counterterrorism alliance that had battled the Islamists courts for months but lost, and had to flee the capital.
He told the AP on Wednesday that his plan to pacify the capital using 20 police vehicles that will patrol the streets "day and night."
"These police forces will arrest every suspected terrorist or bandits," he said.
The United States backed Dheere’s alliance in an attempt to root out any al-Qaida members operating in the Horn of Africa. Somalia has long been a particular concern to the United States, which has long-standing fears that Somalia will become a refuge for members of Osama bin Laden’s terror network, much like Afghanistan did in the late 1990s.
Mogadishu resident Mohamed Mohamud Burale said that after so much ferocious violence in Mogadishu, the government was wise to start trying to unite the capital along clan lines.
"It could lead to peace," the 26-year-old said. "It may be that nobody would go against the government."
Ted Dagne, an expert on Somalia at the Congressional Research Service, said the warlords’ appointments are not going to bring about a lasting peace because they "do not address the root causes of the problem facing Somalis."
A peace conference planned for later this month is the best hope for that, he said.
"The key test is going to be not jus the appointment of individuals to key positions, but what this reconciliation conference does for those who feel they’ve been sidelined by the Transitional Federal Government," he said. "That has to include the moderate elements of the Islamic courts."