In Somalia, the government prepares to take stage at last

Special to The Times

A day after the fall of Mogadishu, Somalia's transitional prime minister made a symbolic visit Friday to the tense capital, where he was met with a mix of cheers and jeers.

In one part of the city, thousands of supporters waved flowers and leaves at his passing convoy; in another, rioters threw stones and burned tires in protest.

Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi had hoped the visit would demonstrate a return to normality after Islamist fighters fled the city Thursday, and show that the newly emboldened government was moving quickly to take control of a battle-weary nation. Instead, his brief tour reignited violence after a lull from Thursday's looting and highlighted the stiff challenges still faced by his administration.

In many ways, it's showtime for Somalia's oft-criticized transitional government, analysts and government officials agree.

The U.N.-recognized government, formed in 2004, has endured so much derision that many pundits and journalists now routinely refer to it as "Somalia's weak transitional government," one government official recently complained, "as if 'weak' had somehow become part of the formal name."

After Islamists rose to power this summer, the transitional government appeared headed toward the trash heap of other failed attempts to install law and order since Somalia slipped into chaos and civil war in 1991.

When 4,000 Ethiopian troops crossed the border last week and helped trounce Islamist fighters, the transitional government got a new lease on life. "There is an opportunity now, and we are going to try as hard as possible to utilize it," said Hassan Mohammed, an aide to President Abdullahi Yusuf.

For the first time since it was created, the government controls a majority of territory in southern Somalia, including Mogadishu. Until Ethiopian and transitional government soldiers marched into the capital early Friday, Mogadishu had been a no-go zone for most government officials. Gedi narrowly escaped assassination there during a visit last year.

During his triumphant return Friday, Gedi acknowledged that the recent turn of events had given his government a window of opportunity to prove itself to the people.

"The Somalia government was born for the first time when we cleared militants from the city," he said. "The government will lead this nation to a bright future. Today is the beginning of a new life, new stabilization and a new future for Somalia."

Amid Friday's violence, Gedi announced that the government would impose martial law for up to three months.

Beauty salon owner Isnino Hussein, 23, whose business was attacked by the Islamists for allegedly promoting female vanity, said she welcomed the government, and even Ethiopian troops. "They will help us restore law and order," she said.

But government officials will need to work hard to convince an increasingly skeptical, cynical public. Many remain uncertain whether the government is capable of rebuilding Somalia, maintaining security and holding newly won territory against possible attacks by warlords or Islamist remnants after Ethiopian troops go home.

"We're not against the transitional government," said Moalim Abdi Salam, a lecturer at Mogadishu University. "The concern is whether the transitional government can maintain order. They couldn't even restore security in Baidoa," the provisional capital.

Many view the transitional government, and its leaders Yusuf and Gedi, as puppets of the Ethiopian government. As Gedi toured Mogadishu on Friday, gasoline vendor Ureyja Abdulkader, 34, chanted angry slogans at the passing cars.

"You traitors!" he shouted. "You are not our prime minister."

In Baidoa, Yusuf defended his government's ability to lead the nation but said it would need immediate help from the international community. "The capacity of the government is still not up to the level of overtaking the entire land overnight," he said.

He said Somalia would need African Union peacekeepers until the government could rebuild a national army. Another top priority, he said, is providing services and assistance to the people.

Yusuf said he was considering a return to Mogadishu. It would mark his first visit since 1978, when he fled as an enemy of the previous regime. "I will go soon," he said. "Why not? It's the capital."

Times staff writer Sanders reported from Baidoa and special correspondent Albadri from Mogadishu.

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