JOWHAR - The leader of Somalia's newly dominant Islamists denied any links to al Qaeda on Saturday and warned the interim government not to put any conditions on proposed peace talks in Yemen.
Islamic Courts Union Chairman Sheikh Sharif Ahmed gave his first news conference to foreign journalists days after the fall of Jowhar, where his militias routed warlords from their last stronghold, 90 km north of the capital Mogadishu.
The Islamists marched into Jowhar after seizing anarchic Mogadishu last week in a fight laced with religious, political and commercial interests.
After word spread that the United States had backed the warlords - who had styled themselves as a counterterrorism force - many Muslims viewed it as a battle for their religion against the US "war on terror" they see as an attack on it.
"We are not terrorists. There are no foreigners. There are no al Qaeda in Somalia. We have no relation with them," Ahmed told reporters, adding that such allegations were misconceptions spread by the warlords to gain allies in Washington.
"I will repeat and repeat, there are no al Qaeda in Somalia," he said. Diplomats and security experts say there are a handful of al Qaeda operatives there, and training camps.
Asked what he would tell US President George W. Bush, Ahmed said: "Do not make again another mistake against these poor suffering people."
He also accused Ethiopia, the United States and other governments of working against the interests of Somalia, mired in anarchy since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
"There are so many governments that will spend large amounts of money to destroy our people," he said.
Educated in Sudan and Libya, the 41-year-old Ahmed said he joined sharia courts in Mogadishu shortly after a 12-year-old boy at the school where he was a teaching was abducted by warlord militiamen.
He spoke to journalists in a compound surrounded by dozens of "technicals" - pickups mounted with anti-aircraft guns and heavy machine guns - and gunmen with assault rifles milling about.
The Islamist militias, which have swiftly taken over a wide swathe of Somalia from the coastal capital to the Ethiopian border, are now a force to be reckoned with inside the Horn of Africa nation.
In doing so, it has encroached on the interim government's temporary base in Baidoa, giving rise to fears it may want to take over, sparking reports that 300 Ethiopian soldiers have crossed into southwestern Somalia on Saturday.
Ethiopia, which has close ties with interim President Abdullahi Yusuf, denied entering Somalia.
The courts say they only want to bring peace and security to Somalia and are willing to negotiate with the government - only if the government demands no pre-conditions.
Yusuf has reportedly agreed to the talks, to be hosted by Yemen, only if the courts recognise his government's authority.
"If he puts conditions on the dialogue and discussion and meeting, we will rethink our plan because we did not put any conditions on meeting him," Ahmed said.
"We do not want to be pushed against our will." If dialogue does not work with the government, Ahmed said: "We will take appropriate steps." He did not elaborate.