NAIROBI, Kenya -- The radical cleric named to lead the Muslim militia controlling most of Somalia's south said yesterday that he envisions an Islamic state, a stand likely to reinforce US fears that the nation could become a haven for extremists.
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on the US terrorist watch list as a suspected collaborator with Al Qaeda, made the comment while discussing efforts to form a functioning central government in Somalia for the first time in 15 years.
``Somalia is a Muslim nation, and its people are also Muslim, 100 percent. Therefore any government we agree on would be based on the holy Koran and the teachings of our Prophet Mohammed ," Aweys said in a telephone interview, his first comments to the media since being named head of the Islamic militia Saturday.
The militia defeated an alliance of US-backed secular warlords this month to take control of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and now holds sway over much of southern Somalia.
Aweys's stance could put Somalia on a collision course with the United States and the United Nations. The previous militia leader, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, had been reaching out to the West and Somalia's largely powerless UN-backed interim government.
The 71-year-old Aweys, speaking from his home in central Somalia, condemned Western-style democracy and said he was under no obligation to abide by the wishes of the West. ``It is not compulsory for us to hate what the Westerners hate," said Aweys, a former military colonel.
``Our relationship with the US administration will depend on how the US treats us," he added. ``If it treats us well, we will also treat them well."
The US government took a cautious stance, saying it had no plans to engage with Aweys but adding it was not ready to conclude Aweys wants to turn Somalia into a terrorist state. Washington has long been concerned that Somalia will become a refuge for members of Osama bin Laden's terror network, much like Afghanistan did in the late 1990s.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would wait to see if the militia shows a commitment to fight terrorism, makes an effort to meet the humanitarian needs of the Somali people, and works with the interim government. ``If they want to have partners in the international community, if they want to work with the US, they want to work with the other members of the international community, we'll see if they meet those standards," McCormack said.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, the United States put Aweys on a terrorist watch list because he and an Islamic group he founded -- Al Itihaad -- were believed to have had links to bin Laden while the Al Qaeda leader was living in Sudan in the early 1990s. US officials have not elaborated on the alleged links.
Aweys went into hiding after the 9/11 attacks and didn't reemerge until August 2005, when he helped found the Islamic militia, now known as the Somali Supreme Islamic Courts Council. He said previously that Al Itihaad no longer existed and that he had no ties to Al Qaeda.
Aweys said yesterday that he did not know of any terrorists in Somalia. ``If we discover them we will take suitable steps against them," he said.
Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice and Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn., a hub for expatriate Somalis, said he was troubled by Aweys's rise to power.
``The election of Aweys is a clear signal that the moderates are losing, and extremists are taking the lead, and now the next possible step is that they will impose a Taliban style of government," he said, referring to the Islamic militia that was ousted by a US-led war in Afghanistan.
Underlining the apparent tougher line, militia leaders said yesterday that they will publicly stone to death four suspected rapists if they are convicted in Jowhar, 55 miles from Mogadishu.
Aweys's predecessor, Sheikh Ahmed, agreed last week to negotiate with the interim government, which was formed with UN help two years ago but failed to assert power. It's based in Baidoa, 90 miles from Mogadishu.
The interim constitution adopted by the interim body makes no reference to Islam. Aweys said that Somalis want an Islamic state and that he will raise the topic when he honors Ahmed's agreement to meet with government leaders next month.
Mogadishu resident Omar Gudle said the capital was tense.
``We are really scared. We don't know what is going on," he said. ``Anything could happen."