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Somali parliament endorses new prime minister

world Updated: Feb 14, 2009 16:27 IST
Abdiaziz Hassan
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Somalia's parliament endorsed on Saturday the appointment of the Western-educated son of a slain former president as prime minister in a unity government tasked with restoring order to the failed Horn of Africa state.

After a 414-to-9 vote in his favour, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, 48, took the oath of office at a session of the legislature in neighbouring Djibouti.

He and President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a moderate Islamist leader who chose Sharmarke to try to broaden the appeal of his government at home and abroad, face the herculean task of bringing peace to Somalia for the first time in 18 years.

Armed Islamist insurgents have declared jihad against the new power-sharing government, formed in a U.N.-brokered peace process in Djibouti. Some 1 million people live as internal refugees around the shattered nation.

Yet the appointments of Ahmed, the former leader of a sharia courts movement, and Sharmarke, a former U.N. employee and member of Somalia's large diaspora, have provided a new political dynamic that is giving some cause for hope.

"I am more optimistic about the future of Somalia than I have been in a number of years," Professor David Shinn, an Africa expert at George Washington University, told Reuters.

"The selection of a PM from the large Darod clan is a wise choice to balance President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's Hawiye clan connection," he said, adding that Sharmarke's distinguished family and diaspora connections would also be advantages.

"I think this selection increases the possibility that the Sheikh Sharif government will be able to pull Somalia out of its downward spiral and eventually even create an administration that is broadly accepted by Somalis."

The leading Islamist insurgent group al Shabaab, however, is determined to stop that. It has attacked both the government and African Union (AU) peacekeepers in recent days and held anti-government protests in areas of south Somalia it controls.

International ties
An al Qaeda leader, too, urged Somali militants to step up jihad against the government in a video released on Friday. Washington believes al Shabaab is al Qaeda's proxy in Somalia, and the group is known to have foreign fighters in its ranks.

The government controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu, whereas Islamist insurgents control other parts of the city and large swathes of the south.

Somalia descended into anarchy and civil confict when warlords kicked out dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, and this is the 15th attempt to set up a government since then.

The new prime minister is the son of Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, an elected president shot dead in 1969 before the military coup that brought Barre into power.

Though his family base is in Virginia in the United States, he has both Canadian and Somali citizenship, his aides said.
"His nomination will boost the international image of the Sheikh Sharif presidency," said Somali political analyst Hassan Hundubey.

In next-door Ethiopia, which has just pulled its military out of Somalia after a two-year intervention, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his troops would cross the border again if necessary, to counter Islamist militants, but was not considering another major entry.

"We reserve our right of hot pursuit but have no intention of going back to Somalia and trying to restabilise the country. We believe we have done quite enough and we believe we have been successful," he said late on Friday.

"Sheikh Sharif distanced himself from terrorism before he became president. ... (He) has assured us his intention is to promote peace within Somalia and all its neighbours ... The Somali jihadists are immeasurably weaker than they were two years ago," Meles added.