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Somalia's al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militants say they have made a tactical retreat from Dhusamareb, the central Somali town al-Shabab attacked three days ago in a bid to oust a rival Islamist group. Al-Shabab views Dhusamareb as an important stepping stone in its quest to put all of Somalia under al-Shabab control.
The spokesman of the Islamist militia Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jamaa, Sheik Abdullahi Sheik Abu Yusuf, says al-Shabab was forced to withdraw from Dhusamareb after losing numerous fighters during Saturday's day-long battle.
Abu Yusuf says more than 100 bodies of al-Shabab fighters have been recovered, including the bodies of three senior commanders. The spokesman says there were also foreign fighters among the dead.
Late Saturday, al-Shabab claimed that its forces had seized the town from Ahlu-Sunna, 11 months after the al-Qaida-linked militants were chased out Dhusamareb by the Sufi militia. Al-Shabab's main spokesman, Ali Mohamud Rage, now acknowledges that al-Shabab forces have withdrawn from Dhusamareb, but only to await new orders on the outskirts of town.
Rage contends that seizing Dhusamareb was not al-Shabab's only objective. He says technically, al-Shabab won because Saturday's attack had achieved another objective - to disrupt a major conference being held by Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jamaa's leadership in the nearby town of Abudwaq.
According to U.S.-based Somali observer Michael Weinstein, the conference, which opened on December 20, posed a significant threat to al-Shabab's goal of turning Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamic state as envisioned by al-Shabab and its allies in the al-Qaida terror network.
Reports say the focus of the Ahlu-Sunna conference was to formulate policy for opposing al-Shabab and to establish a super-administration for areas under Ahlu-Sunna control in central Somalia. Weinstein says he believes al-Shabab decided to take action when, on December 31, delegates at the conference elected a 41-member parliament and was preparing to elect an executive for the new administration.
"Having an administration that takes care of borders, and actually might provide some services as well, is a gigantic barrier to al-Shabab," Weinstein said. "When you do not have an administration, it is much more of an open situation. It is not so easy to penetrate a functioning administration."
It is believed the attack on Dhusamareb prompted Ahlu-Sunna leaders to postpone the conference for two weeks so that their militia could tighten security in towns under their control and prepare for another al-Shabab offensive in Dhusamareb.
Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jamaa took up arms against al-Shabab in late 2008 to protect the country's long-held Sufi traditions and moderate religious views.
The militia is partly allied with the country's weak, U.N.-backed transitional government and has had success in gaining control of towns in the Galgadud and southern Mudug regions from al-Shabab. But Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jamaa's reputation in Somalia has been tainted by reports that it is supported by Somalia's traditional rival, Ethiopia.