JAWHAR, Somalia -- Islamist militias tightened their hold on southern Somalia yesterday by seizing control of a major strategic town, ousting a group of secular warlords in a brief, decisive battle just a week after driving them from the capital city of Mogadishu.
The nation's transitional government, based in Baidoa, asked the African Union to deploy peacekeeping troops. The AU supports the transitional government but has not approved the deployment.
The Islamic militants of the Islamic Courts Union have strongly opposed the presence of foreign troops in the country and threatened to halt talks with the transitional government if they sought AU help. The union has been organizing mass demonstrations against foreign troops in Mogadishu's stadium set for coming days to protest the move and demonstrate its level of popular backing.
The attack on Jawhar, 40 miles north of Mogadishu, came at midmorning, and within hours the militias of the warlords, who had dominated the capital for 15 years, were fleeing their last military stronghold. Up to 19 people may have died in the fighting, the Associated Press reported.
The Islamic Courts Union immediately flexed its muscles when chairman Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed told residents they should understand that the town would be ruled under Islamic law, or sharia.
Somalia, a fractured country of 10 million people, has suffered anarchy and chaos for 15 years, with no central government, police, army or government services.
The Islamist militant victories in Mogadishu and Jawhar have resulted in a seismic power shift in the country, posing a threat to the weak transitional government in Baidoa, 124 miles northwest of Jawhar.
The transitional government, which lacks the force or support to govern from Mogadishu, is fearful the ICU could overrun Baidoa.
Standing in the Jawhar stadium in front of about 500 people, a grinning Sheikh Sharif raised his right fist in the air and shouted "Allahu Akbar," "God is great." He was surrounded by about 30 guards.
"We came here to restore the freedom of the people of Jawhar," he said. "We know that this was a place where all bad deeds against Islam took place. The oppression of the warlords ended today."
He warned that anyone who committed an offense under sharia would be punished and imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on the town.
The rise of the ICU has raised alarm in the Bush administration that Somalia may be dominated by Islamic extremists who could shelter militant organizations such as al-Qaida, although Sheikh Sharif has said the ICU bears no enmity to the West. The U.S. has denied widespread reports that it has funded the alliance of warlords.
In Jawhar yesterday, one ICU fighter, Aidarus Omar, expressed joy about the ease of the victory. "I hope that we succeed in installing Islamic government across Somalia. If we managed to take Jawhar, it will be easy to take the other towns in the country. We will take them," he said, pledging to bring Islamic values to the entire country.
Abukar Albadri and Robyn Dixon write for the Los Angeles Times.