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Somalia's powerful lawmaker offers Islamic leaders role in government


MOGADISHU, Somalia: Somalia's most powerful lawmaker offered the country's Islamic movement a role in government, but said it must pull back its militia to avert a looming war.

Speaking Tuesday after holding peace talks with top Islamic leaders, Parliament Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden said the weak but internationally recognized government and the Islamic group could combine to try to bring peace to Somalia, a country shattered by 15 years of civil war. Aden, though, met with Islamic leaders without the authorization of the transitional government.

Arab and African mediators had hoped to work out some kind of accommodation between the government and its Islamic rivals in failed peace talks in Khartoum, Sudan. During those talks, which collapsed last week, officials close to both sides said the Islamic forces would be offered the post of prime minister.

Both sides have been in a tense standoff amid fears of an all-out conflict. Aden called for Islamic militia to pull back from outside Baidoa, 250 kilometers (150 miles) northwest of the capital, Mogadishu. Baidoa is the only town the government controls.

"We have to solve our problem ourselves and combine the transitional government and the Islamic courts," Aden told journalists after four hours of talks with the leader of the Islamic movement, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, and a senior Islamic official, Sheik Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

Aweys said during the meeting that peace talks held outside of Somalia would never bring stability to the country. "No one will gain power in Somalia through Ethiopia, but through the support of people," added Ahmed, referring to Ethiopia's backing of the government.

It was unclear how they would combine, however they agreed to continue talks and involve Somali intellectuals and interest groups to see how a joint administration could be formed. Islamic leaders did not say whether they would pull back their militia from the outskirts of Baidoa.

The transitional government has accused Aden of breaking ranks and trying to further undermine it.

Aden is considered the leader in the government who is most sympathetic to the Islamic movement, which the United States accuses of having ties to al-Qaida. His decision to hold talks without the cooperation of the prime minister and president was seen as a direct challenge to their authority and could lead to the collapse of the government.

Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictator and then turned on one another. The government was formed with the help of the U.N. two years ago, but has struggled to assert its authority.

Islamic militants, meanwhile, have been rising since June and now control the capital and most of the country's south.

Experts say Somalia could become a proxy battleground for neighboring Eritrea and Ethiopia. Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia in a 1961-91 civil war and fought a 1998-2000 border war with its rival, supports the Islamic militia. Ethiopia backs the interim government.

A confidential U.N. report obtained recently by The Associated Press said 6,000-8,000 Ethiopian troops are in Somalia or along the border. It also said 2,000 soldiers from Eritrea were inside Somalia. Eritrea denies having any troops in Somalia, while Ethiopia insists it has sent only a few hundred advisers.

Late last week, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, warned that extremists in Somalia were planning suicide attacks in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Aweys, the Islamic leader, said Sunday that the reports were untrue.

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