MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – The hard-line Muslim leaders who have seized control of much of southern Somalia claimed authority throughout the country Thursday in yet another blow to the largely powerless but internationally recognized interim government.

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, leader of the militia’s executive council, made the claim while officially announcing a restructuring of the powerful Islamic Courts Union. The group has changed its name to the Supreme Islamic Courts Council and added dozens of new members who lead Islamic courts throughout Somalia.

The restructuring last weekend also saw Ahmed replaced as the group’s overall leader by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on the U.S. terrorist watch list as a suspected collaborator with al-Qaida.

“We hope this council will be more effective than the one before,” said Ahmed, a relatively moderate cleric who had been reaching out to the interim government and the West before he was demoted Saturday night.

The Islamic groups claim of authority throughout the country came a week after it agreed to recognize the interim government and stop all military action – a move that signaled a willingness to accommodate the desires of the international community.

But in the days since the agreement was signed, the militia demoted Ahmed and announced that it would not consult anybody on how to run the capital, Mogadishu.

“We are responsible for the security of the capital, and those who say we broke the agreement did not understand what the agreement was about,” Ahmed said.

The interim government carries little sway in Somalia, and its operations are restricted to Baidoa, 90 miles from the capital.

Islamic militiamen seized a clan-held checkpoint just outside Mogadishu earlier in the week in a battle that killed six people, prompting complaints that the group violated its agreement to halt military action.

Residents started fleeing the area Wednesday for fear of renewed violence. Hundreds of Islamic militiamen continued to gather in the area Thursday, just 500 yards from fighters loyal to Habar Gidir clan leader Abdi Hassan Awale.

Islamic fighters dismantled another checkpoint on the road leading to Mogadishu’s weapons market Thursday without a fight.

“We will rehabilitate the militias and re-educate them,” said Abu Qutaiba, an Islamic courts commander who led the takeover.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, carving much of the country into armed camps ruled by violence and clan law.

Many of the capital’s residents applauded the Islamic group for ridding Mogadishu of the widely despised warlords. But some have expressed concerns the militia may try to remake Somalia into a hard-line Islamic regime akin to Afghanistan under its former Taliban rulers.

The U.S. government has long-standing concerns that Somalia will become a refuge for members of Osama bin Laden’s terror network, much like Afghanistan did in the late 1990s. The U.S. has accused the Islamic militia of harboring al-Qaida leaders responsible for deadly 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The U.S. backed the secular warlords in their fight against the Islamic militia.


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