Besieged Somali leader is trying to be heard

Isolated in his hilltop villa and having lost four ministers to a suicide bomber, Somalia's president is told to venture out if he wants to win peace.

Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed *** Local Caption ***  tim-freccia-mogadishu-9579.jpg *** Local Caption ***  tim-freccia-mogadishu-9579.jpg
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MOGADISHU // When President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed wants to tour his territory, the trip takes less than an hour. That is because his government controls only a few city blocks of Somalia's capital - an area smaller than Yas Island in a country the size of France.

Sheikh Sharif is practically a prisoner in his own house, a palatial hilltop villa with stunning views of the Indian Ocean. He rarely leaves his compound: rebel snipers are waiting just beyond his walls. When he does move, it is in a convoy of heavily armoured vehicles. On the rare occasions that he flies out of the country, militants usually lob mortars at his plane. The president's isolation has prevented him from interacting with Somalis, which is essential to winning their support. Overrun by Islamist extremists, Sheikh Sharif's government has failed to unite the warring factions and end the conflict that has destroyed Somalia.

"Sometimes you may have plans to accomplish certain things, but if you don't have the financial resources to accomplish that, it may not happen," the president said in an interview at his villa. "Sometimes people ask why the government doesn't do a list of things. But they don't ask themselves what are the challenges they face, what resources they have to work with and how much that can stretch." In a serious blow to the already weak government, a suicide bomber dressed as a woman last week blew himself up at a university graduation, killing four government ministers and 19 others. Islamis tmilitant groups that control most of the country denied responsibility for the bombing, but government officials blamed al Shabab, an insurgent group with ties to al Qa'eda.

"We condemn that evil act perpetrated by people working on foreign ideas," Sheikh Sharif said of the bombing. "This is not Somali work. It is a newly imported idea to destroy Somalia and prevent its people from having stability, peace and their own government. We are committed to making the dreams of our people a reality, and such terrorist acts will never deter us." Sheikh Sharif, 43, came to power in January amid high hopes that he could negotiate with the Islamist rebels and bring them into the government. A teacher and Islamic scholar, he led the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) when it briefly controlled Somalia in 2006.

After the ICU was overthrown by Ethiopian troops backed by the United States, Sheikh Sharif went into exile in Yemen. The US government, which supported his enemies in 2006, is now one of his strongest backers as he leads the transitional federal government. Sheikh Sharif has one of the hardest jobs in the world. His country has been at war for 19 years. Clan-based warlords destroyed most of Somalia as they fought for power. In the past three years, however, the war has turned religious. Al Shabab and other Islamist factions that were once allied with the president have tried to overthrow the government.

"The people who are fighting us are skilled professionals who are creating havoc in different parts of the world," the president said. "This is not a problem that was faced by previous governments." One of the first things Sheikh Sharif did was establish Islamic law in Somalia, a move meant to appease the Islamists. But his version of Islam is too moderate for the radicals, and they disapprove of his ties to the United States.

In August, Sheikh Sharif met Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, in Nairobi. Mrs Clinton pledged money and weapons to Sheikh Sharif's beleaguered government. "We believe that [Sheikh Sharif's] government is the best hope we've had in quite some time for a return to stability and the possibility of progress in Somalia," she told reporters. "No one knows better than the president the challenges facing Somalia and his people."

The international community pledged $200 million (Dh734m) to the Somali government at a donor conference in April, although most of that has not materialised. "The resources needed to build the security forces, to rebuild infrastructure, the services to the people, the humanitarian services - all that requires financial resources and the international community could help," Sheikh Sharif said. "Unfortunately, we're still at the stage of receiving promises and not at the delivery of needed resources."

Experts say Sheikh Sharif has not done enough to win the hearts and minds of the people. "There was a lot of hope and optimism when this president was elected," said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst with International Crisis Group, a think tank in Brussels. "Almost a year down the road, he's not anywhere near consolidating power in Mogadishu or in the rest of the country." To accomplish this, analysts say, he needs to leave his compound more and interact with the population, as dangerous as this may be.

"This battle can be won in the mosque," Mr Abdi said. "It's an ideological battle. He should go out and use his great oratory power and his intellect to undermine the support that the hardliners have. The president must be seen out in public, talking to his people, giving broadcasts. A president needs to be seen and heard." Sheikh Sharif understands this and has begun to make himself more visible. On a recent Friday, he ventured out to a mosque to give a sermon.

"We have brought elements of the people opposing us into the government, but there are some remaining who are still fighting and we are working on them," he said. "But since we have tried and they are not moving forward, many people are convinced it's important to focus on governing and taking care of the people. Especially those who have been misled, who have been brainwashed; we're hopeful they will come to their senses."