MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – An increasingly powerful Islamic militia rolled through its newly captured territory and installed a religious court in one town Wednesday as the remnants of a U.S.-backed alliance of warlords desperately tried to regroup.

The Islamic Courts Union controls the Somali capital and surrounding areas after defeating the secular warlord alliance in weeks of battles that killed at least 330 people – many of them civilians caught in the crossfire.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, have confirmed cooperating with the secular warlords, who charge the militia has links to al-Qaida.

The Bush administration has not confirmed or denied giving money to the alliance. President Bush warned this week that the chief concern “is to make sure that Somalia does not become an al-Qaida safe haven.”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday the Islamic Courts Union had sent a letter to the United States, adding that Washington was reserving judgment on the group.

“In terms of the Islamic courts, our understanding is that this isn’t a monolithic group that it is really an effort on the part of some individuals to try to restore some semblance of order in Mogadishu,” McCormack told reporters.

Their aim, he added, “is to try to lay the foundations for some institutions in Somalia that might form the basis for a better and more peaceful, secure Somalia where the rule of law is important.”

McCormack was answering a question whether the Islamic Courts group had pledged in its letter that it was not going to harbor terrorists. McCormack would only confirm that the letter had been received.

“I think that as a matter of principle that we would look forward to working with groups or individuals who have an interest in a better, more peaceful, more stable, secure Somalia who are interested – who are also interested in fighting terrorism,” he said.

Somalia has been without a real government since largely clan-based warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, dividing this nation of 8 million into a patchwork of rival fiefdoms.

Militiamen toting heavy machine guns installed an Islamic court in Balad, about 20 miles from the capital. Chanting residents said that an Islamic state would help pacify a nation wracked by anarchy since 1991.

“Allah is our God, Muhammad is our prophet and Islam is our religion, so we are in favor of acting on the holy Quran,” said local cleric Mohamud Anshur.

Shop owner Mostaf Hassan Ali said he would give the militia a chance.

“The secular militia did not provide reliable security to this town. Now, we can rest assured the Islamists can improve the situation,” he said.

About 20 miles away in Jowhar, their last remaining stronghold, secular warlords took up defensive positions two days after being pushed out of the capital in a humiliating defeat that came despite U.S. support for their alliance, which has said it wants to root out terrorists.

If militiamen capture Jowhar and consolidate power in Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union will effectively control all of the major towns in southern Somalia, further isolating the U.N.-backed transitional government in Baidoa, 155 miles from the capital.

Interim Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi told journalists in Baidoa that the international community needed to urgently send food, medicine and temporary shelter to assist residents of Mogadishu driven from their homes by the fighting.

He called for international mediation to bring peace to Somalia’s troubled capital and to prevent any future outbreaks of violence. He said his government was ready to begin negotiations with the Islamic militants.

Somalia’s location in the Horn of Africa and its role as a cultural bridge with the Middle East gives the country strategic importance, so much so that the United States has posted troops in neighboring Djibouti to try to prevent terror groups from taking hold in the Horn of Africa.

But U.S. efforts to influence Somalia have consistently fallen flat. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. officials have expressed concerns that Somalia could become a haven for terrorists.

AP-ES-06-07-06 2140EDT

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