Somali President Sheik Sharif Ahmed

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Somali President Sheik Sharif Ahmed

Somali President Sheik Sharif Ahmed has described his job as the most difficult in the world, and he may be right. Now in its 19th year of civil war and without a government worthy of the name, Somalia is the world's most failed state, shattered by war and serving as a safe haven for both al-Qaeda and pirates. Sharif, a strict Islamist who nevertheless believes in dialogue with the West and who came to power in January, rules little more than a few blocks in Mogadishu, and recently even that has been threatened by a ferocious attack by his former allies in Somalia's Islamist movement. He spoke to TIME about his government, life in Somalia and the issue of piracy. (See pictures of Somali pirates.)

Is your government going to survive? How? How do you achieve peace and stability in the world's most lawless country?
I am confident the government will survive. Fighting in Mogadishu does not mean the government is feeble enough to be toppled. The Somali people and their government are facing the challenges seriously to stop the fighting. My hope is that wars in Somalia eventually become something for the history books. Of course, when you have to start everything from zero and the nation has to be completely reconstructed, there are incredible obstacles and a rough road ahead.

What kind of assistance do you need? Peacekeeping? Humanitarian? Military? Or is any assistance foreign interference?
There is nothing left in Somalia. It is ruined. Wars continue. The situation in which we find ourselves [as a government] is ... abnormal. We need all kinds of assistance from the world in building up our national security forces, reconstructing destroyed cities and returning displaced people. We need assistance to re-establish sources of income and to create jobs for the people so that they can live without having to break the law. [We also need to] restore collapsed social services, education and health.

We have some troops [a 4,900-strong African Union peacekeeping force] here, and reinforcing this mission may be necessary. It seems those opposing us want Somalia to be in this turmoil indefinitely. They are not interested in talks to end this war. (Read "Somalia's Crisis: Not Piracy, but Its People's Plight.")

What does your government offer for the world and Somalia? Peace and development?
Absolutely, we offer peace to the world. My dream is to see peaceful, prosperous Somalia where everyone can get his rights, freedom and livelihood without harming others.

What does radical opposition Islamist leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys offer Somalia and the world?
Sheik Hassan and I once worked together, guided by principle, and I believe I am still on the same road. What he believed to be impossible became possible. Sheik Hassan believed Ethiopia [which invaded in 2006 to topple a previous Islamist government that included Sharif and Aweys] would not withdraw and change was not feasible. [But] Ethiopia pulled its troops out of Somalia in 2008 and change came. He had a role to play and could have helped us to reinstate our nationhood. He has a duty to make Somalia peaceful.

Sheik Hassan objects strongly to your relations with the U.S., as does al-Qaeda.
It is vital for the government to have a relationship with the U.S. We do not live on an isolated island. We need to be assisted to rebuild the country and recover from civil war. Any assistance to Somalia, any relations that are serving the interest of the people, is not shameful. It is progress.

Can you end piracy?
The pirates who hunt down ships are based on land. That's the reality. We can play our part by organizing locals to reject piracy on land. We have also started restructuring Somalia's navy. I have appointed an experienced general to be the commander of the navy.

Can your government act as a bridge between Islamists and the West?
Without leaving our Islamic principles, we can have relations with the West. I believe my government can succeed in reducing the gap.

Why is Somalia seemingly so important to Osama bin Laden? Why is it so attractive to foreign Islamist fighters?
The reason foreign fighters pour into our country is that there is lack of governance and there are Somalis who work tirelessly for Somalia to be stuck in chaos forever who welcome these people. Somalis have to understand the consequences that these foreigners have. Everyone can contribute to peace and development. But it is obvious that our friends have been misled by outsiders.

What is the price of failure in Somalia?
A failed state will disrupt the security of the region and the whole world.

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