After years of chaos in Somalia, a leader may have a chance

 Mogadishu, Somalia — From the gates of Villa Somalia, the hilltop presidential palace, this ruin of a city almost looks peaceful.

After nearly two decades of civil war, there is very little pollution, since just about all of Somalia’s industry has been razed. A clean breeze lifts off the ocean and stirs the bougainvillea. Few cars remain in the city and relatively few people, because hundreds of thousands have recently fled. It is surreally quiet, except for the occasional crack of a high-powered rifle.

President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed sits behind his desk in a pinstriped suit, prayer hat, designer glasses and a chunky, expensive-looking watch. He is ringed by enemies and guarded around the clock by Ugandan soldiers who literally camp outside his door and, for the rare occasions he leaves the palace, drive him to the airport in an armored personnel carrier. The few glimpses he gets of Mogadishu’s deserted streets are through 2-inch-thick bulletproof glass.

“This government faced obstacles that were unparalleled,” said Sharif, a former high school teacher, who became president in February. “We had to deal with international terrorist groups creating havoc elsewhere. Their plan was to topple the government soon after it arrived. The government proved it could last.”

The odds against Sharif are still long, but his moderate Islamist government is widely considered to be Somalia’s best chance for stability in years.

For the first time in decades — including 21 years of dictatorship and the 18 years of chaos that followed — Somalia’s leader has both widespread grass-roots support inside the country and extensive help from outside nations, analysts and many Somalis say.

Much of the world is counting on Sharif to tackle piracy and beat back the spread of militant Islam, two Somali problems that have flared into major geopolitical ones. Al-Qaida appears to be drawing closer to Somali insurgents in an effort to turn this country into a launching pad for global jihad. Just this week, American commandos killed a Qaida agent in southern Somalia in a daring daylight helicopter raid.

After years of ambivalence about Somalia, the United States is playing an increasingly active role here, and recently shipped 40 tons of weapons to Somalia to keep Sharif’s government alive.

But his armed forces are like sieves. Many of his commanders still have ties to the Shabab, the Islamist insurgents working with al-Qaida to overthrow Sharif’s government, and several government officers here conceded that a large share of the American weapons quickly slipped into Shabab hands.

If not for the 5,000 African Union troops guarding the port, airport and Villa Somalia, many Somalis believe Sharif’s government would quickly fall.

“It wouldn’t be days,” said Asha A. Abdalla, a member of Parliament. “It would be hours.”

Gen. Mohamed Sheik, Somalia’s intelligence chief, said that when Sharif took office, the government had 37 technicals, that distinctly Somali invention of a pickup truck with a cannon riveted on the back. Then it decided to give technicals to Islamist militias allied with the government.

“That was our mistake,” Mohamed said. “They defected. One time, four. One time, two. Now, no technicals.”

Sharif is a novel politician for Somalia because, to start with, he is a politician. For decades, this once languid coastal country has been reduced to rubble by generals, warlords and warrior types.

Sharif, 43, is used to carrying a compass, not a gun. Studious and reserved, he has triangulated his country’s clannish politics and found something that resembles Somalia’s political center, a blend of moderate and more strident Islamic beliefs, with the emphasis on religion, not clan. To help, he has assembled an impressive brain trust of Somali-Americans, Somali-Canadians and Somali-Europeans with doctorate degrees who had been waiting on the sidelines for years to help rebuild their country.

But the clock is ticking. Each day Sharif remains holed up in his hilltop palace, with millions of his people on the brink of starvation because of drought and grenades exploding just outside the palace gates, the euphoria that greeted his ascension slides into cynicism.

Villa Somalia may be safe, but the rest of Mogadishu, the capital, is a death trap of assassinations, land mines and senseless violence. Errant mortar shells routinely shear off the arms and legs of children.

Just a few hundred meters beyond Villa Somalia’s chipped plaster walls are Shabab fighters with scarves over their faces and sniper rifles who used to be allied with Sharif and are now trying to kill him.

The Shabab are as much of a political anomaly as the president. The president’s advisers contend that they have never seen a force as cohesive, well-trained and ideologically driven. The Shabab and their insurgent brethren now control most of Mogadishu and much of the country. They are often referred to as the Somali Taliban, sawing off thieves’ hands and recently yanking out people’s teeth, saying gold fillings were somehow un-Islamic.

But Somalis are not as religiously extreme as the Shabab’s presence might imply, and many say they are getting sick of the Shabab.

In fact, the Shabab have their own defectors and may be losing critical support. Two young men who recently quit said the Shabab’s pipeline of money, which used to flow from rich Somalis outside the country, was drying up as more Somalis backed Sharif. Aid workers said the Shabab were taxing food in their territory, a very unpopular move when food prices are already high because of the drought.

The Shabab used to be seen as genuine freedom fighters, the ones leading the battle against the thousands of Ethiopian troops in Somalia, propping up the previous transitional government.

But now that the Ethiopians have left, the Shabab seem to be going through an ideological drift. Their focus is no longer on liberating Somalia, the defectors said, but on something bigger.

“Our commanders were trying to tell us that there’s no Somali national flag and no national borders,” said one recent defector named Mohamed who feared identifying himself further. “They told us the jihad will never end. Once we finish in Somalia, we go to Kenya and then elsewhere.”

While that global agenda may be alienating Somalis, it seems to be a magnet for wayward jihadists looking for the next holy war. Former insurgent commanders paint a much more alarming picture than American officials, who contend that there are only several hundred foreign fighters inside Somalia.

“There are thousands,” said Sheik Yusuf Mohamed Siad, who recently joined the government after defecting from Hizbul Islam, an insurgent group close to the Shabab. He said that many battle-hardened men were coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan, and that a cell of suicide bombers were being trained in Mogadishu by Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, a Qaida operative and a prime suspect in the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

“Fazul’s an expert at war,” Yusuf said. “He would be making more suicide bombs. He’s just running out of resources.”