MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Somali government forces and African Union peacekeepers can take back control of the country's ruined capital from Islamist insurgents within a year, the Somali prime minister said Wednesday.
"We just need one year. Our forces are advancing in the city," Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed told The Associated Press.
The Somali transitional government, which is backed by about 9,000 African Union troops, now controls about half of the capital city, although attacks are frequent and sporadic gunfire can be heard throughout the day.
Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab controls the other half and much of south-central Somalia. The State Department says some leaders of al-Shabab have links to al-Qaida.
"We can take back our city," said Mohamed, a Somali-American who previously taught at a community college in New York state. "If we get a year's extension, we can push al-Shabab out of Mogadishu."
The transitional government's mandate expires in August, but last week it extended its mandate for another year. The prime minister was appointed in October; the president has been in power for over a year.
"People need to understand we are not the same government as the last one," Mohamed said.
The U.N. has called for the government to step down in August but Mohamed said that changing the government again would make politicians focus on campaigning, distracting from the fight against the insurgency and jeopardizing hard-won gains.
In the past two months, AU troops have pushed the front line north, expanding their number of bases. Somali government troops follow behind.
The previous administration was characterized by incompetence, bickering and corruption, but Mohamed said his government has implemented several reforms, including publishing their budgets, increasing revenue collection and providing some basic services like street lights and garbage collection. Infighting remains a problem, and tensions between the president and the powerful speaker of parliament are very strained.
The commander of the AU force, which provides the heavy firepower and disciplined troops needed to take on al-Shabab, said further expansion was planned but more troops were needed. Maj. Gen. Nathan Mugisha said the force should receive an extra 3,000 soldiers within the next few months.
The U.N.-backed Somali government is heavily dependent on the AU to provide security. Its own troops are a mishmash of poorly disciplined fighters drawn from clan militias and are incapable of taking and holding territory by themselves.
Mugisha said that deciding whether the government should change in August was an issue for the Somali people, but noted that the AU and government forces had suffered their heaviest setbacks during times of political unrest.
Somalia has not had a functioning government for 20 years. Its streets are littered with rubble from destroyed buildings. Displaced families camp out in the ruins in tiny-dome shaped huts made by stretching cloth over twigs.