Meet the president of Hell

CHICAGO — Ah, Somalia. Land of a thousand gunshots.

The Hobbesian country, where life is brutish and short, has had some good news of late, though, in that it has a president with a modicum of a chance of leading it to stability.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, who was elected by a de facto parliament in January 2009, was in the U.S. last week trying to drum up support for his fledgling and extremely fragile administration. GlobalPost interviewed him after he spoke to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Since taking office nine months ago, Ahmed has been living under siege in a presidential compound called Villa Somalia. But that's the good part: he's living, albeit guarded by a posse of Ugandan troops.

Somalia's own threadbare military forces are too under-equipped and ill-trained to stand sentry, much less stand down against the extremist groups that prowl around the capital city of Mogadishu and elsewhere.

It's these armed groups — principal among them the Islamic militancy known as Al
Shabaab
 — that are the wedge between peace and chaos.

Al Shabaab, which some experts believe has ties to Al Queda, is a ruthless organization that's left a trail of dead throughout the country and poses a vexing problem for the new president: how does a leader with a weak military confront and destroy an outfit that prizes viciousness and anarchy?

"This ideology cannot stand," said a quiet, diminutive ex-teacher who now lives in constant danger. His sojourn to the U.S., which also included stops in Minnesota and Ohio, was designed to generate support from the Somali diaspora and keep his ailing country on Washington's radar. Ahmed had been driven out of Somalia in 2006 by U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces. At the time, his brand of Islamic leadership and justice was considered too extreme. Not anymore.

Now he's Washington's best hope to maintain some kind of order. The U.S. has sent weapons to Ahmed's forces and has said it will look for additional ways to support the new government. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent her best wishes when they met in August. Now Ahmed is probably hoping she sends some more firepower as well.

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