Somali Sufi militia joins government to fight rebels

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Somalia’s government has agreed to bring one of the country’s militia groups on board ahead of an expected military push against Islamist rebels threatening to topple the administration.

Two insurgent groups have been fighting the Horn of Africa nation’s government since the start of 2007 and the Western-backed administration has been hemmed into a few blocks of the capital Mogadishu since a rebel offensive last May. The group brought in, Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca (ASWJ, pictured), is made up of moderate Sufi Muslims who have been fighting the insurgent groups al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam in central Somalia.

Somalia has a rich Sufi tradition going back more than five centuries. Sufis have been angered by the desecration of graves, the beheading of clerics, and bans on celebrating the birth of the Prophet imposed by the hardline Wahhabi insurgents.

Ahlu Sunna’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Mahmoud Sheikh Hassan, said the groups would need financial support from the international community to integrate their administrative, leadership and military structures and fight al Shabaab. “This is not a fight or struggle against people but against an ideology,” Hassan said at the signing ceremony in Ethiopia’s capital. “The meaning of this agreement is to save the people of Somalia and the reputation of the Islamic faith.”

Al Shabaab, which professes loyalty to al Qaeda, is battling to impose its own harsh version of sharia law throughout Somalia. The government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has agreed to implement a more moderate version of sharia in the country. Somalia has had no effective government for 19 years and Western nations and neighbours say the anarchic country is used as a shelter by militants intent on launching attacks in east Africa and further afield.

Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke said Ahlu Sunna would be given five, as yet undetermined, ministries and would appoint deputy commanders of the military, the police and the intelligence services.
“This agreement is a victory for peace and a crushing defeat for extremist groups,” Sharmarke said at the ceremony. “This day will go into history as the day of peace for the Somali people and the region as a whole.” The government has said for several months it will launch a major offensive but has yet to do so. Rebels have stepped up attacks in various parts of the capital this month.

At least 21,000 Somalis have been killed since the start of 2007, 1.5 million have been uprooted from their homes and nearly half a million are sheltering in other countries in the region. A resident in the Ahlu Sunna held town of Dusamareb in central Somalia said the deal brought some hope.
“The power sharing deal is likely to reduce Somalia’s chaos,” Ali Suleiman said by phone. “We now smell peace: if the government and Ahlu Sunna have united, the rebels will be pushed from opposite sides and thus weakened.”



But Hizbul Islam said Ahlu Sunna would just lose support by joining a government which has little influence outside Mogadishu and is often criticised as being corrupt and divided. “The Addis agreement will not have any positive impact. It will only lead to the destruction of the so-called Ahlu Sunna,” Sheikh Mohamed Osman, Hizbul Islam spokesman, told Reuters.