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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Somali parliament sworn in but presidential vote delayed

Somalia swore in its new parliament in a historic ceremony policed by African Union troops, as the war-torn nation tries once more to end two decades of conflict.

The swearing-in, held on the tarmac of the capital's airport, was the culmination of a UN-backed process in which lawmakers were chosen by a group of 135 traditional elders.

It brought an official end to Somalia's transitional government after eight years of political infighting and rampant corruption.

However, the election of a new president was delayed. Lawmakers said the process would begin in a "few days", with multiple candidates vying in a fierce race to unseat incumbent President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

"The MPs are very happy to be sworn in at home," said new lawmaker Siyad Shire Mohamoud.

Transitional government deputies had previously undergone the ceremony abroad because of the abysmal security situation.

"My desire is to change the current messy political landscape to a better one," Mohamoud said.

In Washington, the White House warned that it would not tolerate any obstruction of war-torn Somalia's political process, hailing the swearing-in of the new parliament as an "important milestone" for the nation.

"All parties must work in a fair and transparent manner and will be held accountable for any failure to do so," White House spokesman Jay Carney said, pledging US support in efforts "to achieve a better future for the people of Somalia."

"We look forward to parliament expeditiously completing all remaining tasks," the White House press secretary said.

Somalia has not had a stable central government since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, which sparked rounds of bloody civil war and decades of chaos.

Lawmakers said the usual parliament building was too dangerous to hold their first symbolic meeting for fear of attack by the country's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents.

After the parliament's interim speaker Musa Hassan Abdallah appealed for a "safe haven", the session was moved to the heavily fortified airport zone, adjoining the base for the nearly 17,000-strong AU force that has propped up the Western-backed transitional leadership against attacks by the Shebab.

"Somalis have been through over 20 years of chaos ... people are ready for a new day in Somalia," said Hussein Arab Isse, a lawmaker and defence minister in the previous government.

Local media said 211 of 275 lawmakers had so far been named by a "technical selection committee" from a list prepared by clan elders, with others pending due to inter-clan arguments.

Others were rejected for failing to meet requirements, including that they be innocent of atrocities committed during the civil war.

Peter de Clercq, deputy head of the UN in Somalia, told Al-Jazeera the full parliament would be ready in the "next week or so".

Despite delays, the process of forming a new government was hailed as an "unprecedented opportunity for greater peace and stability" in a joint statement by the UN, AU, United States and European Union issued Sunday.

"The conclusion of the transition should mark the beginning of more representative government in Somalia," added the statement, also signed by Norway, Turkey and East Africa's main diplomatic body IGAD, among others.

However, analysts have taken a far gloomier outlook on the process, suggesting it offers little but a reshuffling of positions.

"The current political process has been as undemocratic as the one it seeks to replace, with unprecedented levels of political interference, corruption and intimidation," the International Crisis Group think tank said Monday.

Bitter arguments have begun between challengers for the top posts -- divided along Somalia's notoriously fractious clan lines -- while many are also reported to oppose the selection of women, who are supposed to hold 30 percent of parliament seats.

The international statement made clear lawmakers must change their behaviour from the actions of the previous parliament.

There was no clear time-frame for when lawmakers would hold key votes by secret ballot to choose a president, a parliament speaker and two deputy speakers.

Sharif, the outgoing president and in power since 2009, is one of the favourites for the top job, though he is a controversial figure with Western observers.

A UN report in July said that under his presidency, "systematic embezzlement, pure and simple misappropriation of funds and theft of public money have become government systems" -- claims Sharif has rejected.

UN diplomats meanwhile said Somalia would be given more time to complete political steps agreed with the Security Council.

"They will be given more breathing space though clearly we can't wait months," said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity as talks on a Security Council reaction are still going on.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called the election a "watershed moment" on the road to peace in Somalia.

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