Somalia's parliament elects first president in 10 years

MOGADISHU, Somalia - With men, women and children dancing and singing in the streets, Somalis celebrated the election of their first president in almost a decade with a unity that will be vital if the new head of state is to fulfill his promise of bringing peace to Somalia.

Hours after Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, a former interior minister, won presidential elections early Saturday, people around the country took to the streets, businesses shut down and restaurants offered free meals in what became a spontaneous national holiday.

''It doesn't matter who is the president, but a government that can tackle the current political, social and economic problem is what we needed,'' said an elated Mohamed Mohamud Warsameh, the district commissioner of Dhusamareb, 320 miles north of the capital.

In Mogadishu, women wept.

''This will definitely be the end of insecurity in Mogadishu. Business will boom,'' said a tearful Mariam Mohamed Hassan.

And in a significant move Saturday, representatives of Mogadishu's business community pledged their full backing to the new assembly.

''We first congratulate the Somali parliament and then the president. We pledge both our moral and material support to the forthcoming government,'' businessman Hajji Abukar Omar Addan said after a group meeting.

The support of the business community, in terms of the cash and militias they have been forced to employ for security purposes, is seen as crucial.

Addan is known to employ 400 gunmen and controls a 25-mile stretch of road along the northeastern coast of the capital to the port of El Ma'an.

Somalia has been a byword for chaos and violence and has had no central government since opposition leaders joined forces to oust dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Faction leaders then fought with each other, turning the Horn of Africa nation into battling fiefdoms ruled by heavily armed militias.

The election of Hassan, who promised to bring economic recovery and peace to the nation of 7 million, came as a result of a conference that began in Arta, a small town in neighboring Djibouti, on May 2.

The brainchild of Djibouti President Ismael Omar Guelleh, it was the 13th attempt at finding a peaceful solution to Somalia's troubles.

The conference, viewed with skepticism by the international community, involved some 2,000 Somali elders, religious leaders and business leaders.

Designed to be representative of Somalia's clan structure, it was the first to include non-faction leaders and was virtually closed to the outside world - keys, observers say, to its apparent success.

On Aug. 13, a 225-member assembly was inaugurated, with each of Somalia's four main clans represented by 49 candidates, including five women each.

An alliance of smaller clans was given the right to name 29 members, and the body was later expanded to 245 members to placate subclans who felt unrepresented.

The parliament currently sits in Arta and will only move to Somalia when a prime minister and Cabinet have been appointed.

So far, with the exception of some faction leaders and the self-appointed heads of the breakaway regions of Puntland and Somaliland, support for the parliament has been unanimous.

After the announcement of Hassan's victory, the sound of heavy machine gun and anti-aircraft fire immediately reverberated around Mogadishu.

Accustomed to living in a volatile world, Somalis were at first terrified - then relieved when they realized that the shooting was in celebration, not anger.

The real test for the new president - a 58-year-old member of the powerful Hawiye clan - and parliament will be when they move to Somalia.

The assembly faces the daunting task of persuading faction leaders opposed to the peace process to respect it, recruit the militiamen who cruise the streets into new national security force and then set about collecting taxes.

In a statement Friday, Muse Sudi Yalahow, a militia leader in southwest Mogadishu, said the initiative was a ''national plot'' masterminded by Djibouti in collaboration with Somali elements whose aim was ''instigating a new round of fighting between Somalis.''

Another opposed to the parliament, Hussein Mohamed Aidid, who controls part of south Mogadishu, has been using Radio Voice of the People, a station he controls, to deride the new assembly and its Djiboutian backers.

International support will also be vital for a country which has seen its infrastructure virtually destroyed and for a parliament which will go home penniless.


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