President of Somalia to visit Minneapolis

The newly elected president of Somalia plans a tour of U.S. communities with large Somali populations this fall in hopes of spreading the word about his country's problems and getting advice for solving some of them.

Elmi Duale, Somalia's United Nations ambassador and permanent representative, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed wants to visit communities in Minneapolis, Columbus and suburban Washington, D.C.

Ahmed plans to make the tour after attending the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September, Duale said. He had no details on dates.

Thousands of Somalis have come to the United States in the two decades since civil war began tearing their country apart in the early 1990s. The country has not had a functioning central government since about 1991.

Ahmed sees the visit as a "two-way channel," Duale said, a chance to tell Somalis in the United States about the situation at home and a way of reminding them they can help.

"It's a way of showing the Somalis in diaspora the homeland considers them still part and parcel of the community, and they have responsibilities to help and assist," he said.

Somali-Americans living in Minnesota are looking forward to Ahmed's visit. Abdisalam Adam is a St. Paul schools liaison and the director of a Minneapolis mosque. Adam says he and other Somali-Americans have a vital role to play in restoring stability in their homeland.

"It is challenging, being so far away. But at the same time, we do know that the diaspora does have a lot of influence in terms of numbers, education and even financing and helping their relatives back in the country," said Adam.

On the other hand, Adam says some local Somalis have supported the divisive factions that have been fighting in Somalia over the past 20 years. He says local community members can make a difference if they steer their efforts in the right direction.

Abdi Aynte, an editor with the Voice of America, says the president, who is also an Islamic scholar, is expected to speak out against the recruitment of Somali-American men believed to be fighting with the violent extremist group al-Shabaab.

"He can tell young people in Minnesota that going to Somalia and joining groups that are not necessarily fighting for Islam is un-Islamic," said Aynte. "In addition to being the head of state, I think he can underscore that. His word is respected, at least in some circles in the Somali community."

Aynte has also heard that the president will visit with families of some of the American fighters who have been killed in Somalia to offer his condolences.

At least five men have died, including one who authorities believe is the first American suicide bomber. Three others have pleaded guilty in the U.S. to terrorism-related charges.

Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, was elected president in January and hopes to unite the country's feuding factions, but violence has continued.

The U.N. said last month that Somalia is facing its worst humanitarian crisis in 18 years, with more than half the population needing humanitarian aid amid an escalating crisis.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Ahmed in early August at the U.S. embassy in Kenya during a seven-nation African tour.

After the meeting, she pledged to expand American support for Somalia's weak interim government and threatened sanctions against neighboring Eritrea for aiding an extremist group she said was trying to launch worldwide terrorist attacks from Somalia.

Duale said he couldn't say what Ahmed might talk about, but said anyone is free to ask the president questions.

"If they ask him, he will answer," Duale said.

(MPR's Laura Yuen contributed to this report)

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