Photo taken Wednesday, Aug 1, 2012, shows Somali president  Sharif Sheik Ahmed,  in Mogadishu, Somalia.—AP Photo

MOGADISHU: War-torn Somalia’s new parliament was due to convene for the first time Monday in the latest bid to end two decades of instability, but the election of a president has been delayed, lawmakers said.

Lawmakers would gather not in the city’s parliament building, but rather Mogadishu’s heavily fortified airport zone under the protection of African Union troops, due to fear of attack by al Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents.

The parliament’s interim speaker Musa Hassan Abdallah appealed Monday to the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) for an “alternative place of safe haven” to meet, the UN said in a statement.

Selection of the new legislature was the first performed inside Somalia for more than 20 years. Previous efforts were conducted outside the country because of the danger of attack posed by a range of warlords and Islamist fighters.

The airport adjoins the base for the nearly 17,000-strong AU force, which has propped up Somalia’s Western-backed leadership against attacks by the hardline Shebab.

The new parliament was expected to hold its inaugural session on the airport tarmac, with the election of speaker and president expected in coming days.

“The presidential elections will not be held today,” said lawmaker Aweys Qarni. “The election committee must still be convened.... There is still work to go before the presidential elections.” Abinasir Garale, who served in the previous parliament and has again been picked for the new legislature, said lawmakers would go ahead with their inaugural meeting Monday and hold elections soon.

“In coming days the new parliament will select a speaker, and they will organise the election committee for the new president,” he said.

Despite delays, the process of forming a new government was hailed as an “unprecedented opportunity for greater peace and stability” in a joint statement from the UN, AU, United States and European Union issued Sunday.

“The conclusion of the transition should mark the beginning of more representative government in Somalia,” added the statement, also signed by Norway, Turkey and East Africa’s main diplomatic body IGAD, among others.

Analysts have taken a far gloomier outlook on the process, suggesting it offers little but a reshuffling of positions.

The international statement made clear lawmakers must change their behaviour from the actions of the previous parliament.

“Whilst parliament remains a selected rather than elected body, it is essential that it cuts its ties with the past of self-interest and warlordism,” it said.

There was no clear time-frame for when voting – first for parliament speaker and two deputy speakers, then for president – would take place.

Outgoing President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, in power since 2009, is one of the favourites for the top job, though he is a controversial figure with Western observers.

A UN report in July said that under his presidency, “systematic embezzlement, pure and simple misappropriation of funds and theft of public money have become government systems” – claims Sharif has rejected.

Multiple candidates – over a dozen, according to diplomats – are expected to run for the presidency, although official lists will only be declared once parliament has convened.

Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali and the outgoing parliament speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan are also contenders.

Voting will be held by secret ballot, with up to four rounds possible to select the president.

The names of more than 200 new lawmakers chosen by a “technical selection committee” from a list prepared by clan elders were published Friday.

A remaining 75 names were still pending at the weekend because of inter-clan arguments, while some 70 others were rejected for failing requirements, including that they be innocent of atrocities committed during the civil war.

Despite the new parliament convening at the airport, massive steps forward have been made recently in Somalia, with greatly improved security in the capital and members of the diaspora returning to invest in their war-ravaged homeland.

A military advance by AU, Somali and Ethiopian troops has driven the Shebab insurgents from a string of key bases in recent months, but fighters have also staged a string of guerrilla attacks.

Updated Aug 20, 2012 01:18pm

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