Somali Islamists consolidated their grip on the lawless capital Mogadishu on Thursday, setting up new Sharia law courts in and around the city despite vows from a US-backed warlord alliance to resist.
With most of Mogadishu under their control after months of bloody fighting, Muslim militia pulled back from the warlords' last stronghold under pressure from elders not to attack, easing a tense three-day standoff.
Witnesses said the Islamists moved back from Jowhar, about 90km north of Mogadishu, and that warlord fighters had taken up their former position at Kalimoy, some 10km south of the town.
"Elders convinced the Islamic courts to move back from Kalimoy," one mediator told reporters in Jowhar. "We are trying to cool tensions."
In the town, about 1,500 people rallied in support of the warlords.
"We will defend ourselves if the Islamists attack," said Abdullahi Wehl Adle, chairman of the Middle Shabelle regional council. "We will fight to the death to defend our people and our territory."
Despite their partial withdrawal, which put them near the town of Balad about 30km north of Mogadishu, the Islamists expanded their influence even as clerics sent mixed messages about their ultimate goal.
Despite assurances they will not forcibly impose strict Islamic rule on Somalia's largely moderate Muslim population, imams have created at least three new Sharia courts in formerly secular areas since Wednesday, officials said.
With the exception of the Abgal clan, which holds parts of northern Mogadishu where at least three warlords are holed up, elders from all of the city's ethnic communities were negotiating to set up Islamic courts, they said.
At an Abgal rally, warlords denounced the Islamists as frauds and said they would not give up the fight.
"They are land grabbers and religious warriors who came together to seize power and property," said warlord Musa Sudi Yalahow. "You have defended yourselves from these aggressors who are hiding behind the mask of Islam."
In addition, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the firebrand cleric who founded the capital's first Islamic court and is believed to have orchestrated the Islamic takeover, was in central Somalia promoting Sharia law, elders said.
Aweys has been designated a "terrorist" by the US and is subject to US sanctions for alleged ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
His suspected terror links were a key reason the US backed the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT), which was formed in February by warlords who say the Islamists are harboring extremists.
US and Western intelligence officials believe that at least three al-Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are now living in Somalia with the protection of Islamists.
Washington gave the ARPCT cash and intelligence support to kill or capture them along with other foreign fighters alleged to have received military training in Somalia.
But in an open letter to the international community sent to diplomats in the Kenyan capital this week, the chairman of the coalition of Mogadishu's 11 Islamic courts, sought to allay fears the group was an African Taliban.
Nearly 350 people have been killed and more than 1,500 wounded, mainly civilians, since fighting erupted between the alliance and the Islamists in February.