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President of Somalia is expected to quit, aides say

Somalia’s aging president is expected to resign in the coming days, aides said Wednesday, succumbing to threats of impeachment and international sanctions over his refusal to support a national reconciliation plan.

Abdullahi Yusuf, a warlord-turned-statesman, was once widely viewed as the linchpin of Somalia’s transitional government. But in recent months, Yusuf, 74, has repeatedly clashed with the prime minister and has come to be regarded as an obstacle to peace.

Yusuf’s departure would mark a turning point for the Horn of Africa nation. It could reignite clan warfare, but it also could clear the way for a new power-sharing government that includes a key Islamist opposition faction.

“Yusuf was always a liability to Somalia and to the peace process,” said Ali Said Omar Ibrahim, head of the Center for Peace and Democracy, a Somali peace advocacy group. “This is going to help bring in a new era for Somalia by helping different stakeholders come together to decide the country’s future.”

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Last week, Yusuf tried to fire the prime minister he appointed a year ago, Nur Hassan Hussein. Since the U.N.-recognized government was formed in 2004, Yusuf has had similar confrontations with others who challenged his authority, including the previous prime minister and parliament speaker.

Parliament rejected the effort to oust Hussein, and Western nations, including the United States, voiced their support for the prime minister. Some African countries, Kenya among them, threatened to impose a travel ban and asset freeze against Yusuf.

“He has come to a juncture whereby it serves a good purpose for him to yield,” said Abdulrizak Durgan, a Yusuf advisor. He said the president had been facing pressure to step down for nearly a year.

“Nobody can make this decision for him,” Durgan said. “He may still defy us all.”

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Aides say Yusuf will use the days ahead to consult with his clan leaders and make security arrangements for a return to his native Puntland in northern Somalia.

In an interview Tuesday, the prime minister declined to comment on Yusuf’s possible resignation. Both men are in Somalia.

The primary dispute between the two is a reconciliation deal negotiated by Hussein, who sought to make peace with a moderate faction of the Islamic Courts Union, a religious alliance that briefly controlled the capital, Mogadishu, and southern Somalia in 2006.

Under the terms of the deal, the opposition group would receive half of the seats in a new parliament, expected to take power in early 2009.

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Yusuf complained that the agreement handed too much power to a single clan and failed to include key Islamist militias that have been fueling an insurgency for two years.

If approved by parliament, the deal also probably would end Yusuf’s tenure because new parliamentary elections are expected for both president and prime minister.

Experts say the so-called Djibouti agreement, named for the tiny African nation where it was signed this year, may be the last chance to salvage Somalia’s government. Somalia has not had a functioning national government since 1991.

Some Yusuf supporters, however, predicted that parliament would be unable to select a new president. Mistrust is so pervasive that shouting matches are common, and one notorious session ended in a chair-tossing brawl.

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“Yusuf is what holds [together] this experiment,” said Mohamoud Ali, a Yusuf supporter and Foreign Ministry official.

Under Somalia’s transitional charter, the speaker of parliament assumes the president’s duties if he resigns and a new president should be elected within 30 days. But some lawmakers said they might delay the presidential election until February, when the new unity parliament should be in place.

Another key question is how Yusuf’s clan, the Darod, will respond. Some fear the Darod will take the president’s resignation as an insult, possibly setting the stage for a renewal of clan warfare between north and south. Puntland, home to most Darod, might also attempt to declare its independence. Though ruled by an autonomous government, Puntland to date has not sought to become an independent state.

Aides to the prime minister said efforts were underway to court the president’s clan, including assurances that a top post in the new government -- either president, prime minister or speaker -- would be reserved for the Darod.

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The political shake-up comes as Ethiopian troops, who have been supporting and protecting the transitional government since 2006, are preparing to withdraw. Experts say that about 3,400 African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi currently in Somalia will not be enough to counter the growing threat of Islamist insurgents, including Shabab, a militia designated by the United States as a terrorist group.

Shabab, which has rejected the Djibouti agreement, controls much of southern Somalia and parts of Mogadishu. It is vowing to retake all of southern Somalia and set up a strict Islamic-based government.

The prime minister, however, said his peace deal would bring stability.

“I’m not expecting to see a vacuum that will bring problems,” Hussein said in the interview. “Let’s be optimistic.”

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edmund.sanders @latimes.com


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