MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The arms market that nestles among stalls selling detergent and medicinal roots is potentially the most dangerous place in this city of anarchy.
Anyone wanting instant authority and protection can buy grenades for less than $1.50 and any weapon from Hungarian Parabellum pistols to small artillery. Russian AK-47 rifles, now selling for $70, do best. Two clips of bullets cost less than a plate of goat meat.
Since the fall of dictator Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre's 21-year regime last January, a new government has not yet taken root. Instead a more primitive system, based on a long history of tribal and Italian colonial rule, has evolved. "Godfathers" control everything from looting to supplying arms for disparate political factions -- and wage war among themselves.
The United Somali Congress, the rebel group that ousted President Siad Barre and now controls Mogadishu, named Ali Mahdi Mohamed to head the interim government. But after nearly nine months in office, President Ali Mahdi has only recently named a Cabinet of 83 ministers. Despite decreeing a strict anti-terrorist law on Aug. 20 to curb violence, he has been unable to restore order.
A national army which could impose order does not exist. Six rebel groups met in Djibouti in July to decide Somalia's fate. They hastily agreed to a mutual cease-fire and joint efforts to defeat remnants of General Siad Barre's army in the southwest. They also confirmed Mr. Ali Mahdi as interim president -- a move that has now split some of the groups.
Osman Arto is one of Somalia's godfathers, a self-made businessman with a large personal militia. He is the United Somali Congress' main weapons supplier. He also operates six or seven workshops that convert stolen four-wheel-drive trucks into "Road Warriors" or "Mad Max" vehicles mounted with 106mm anti-tank cannon and heavy machine guns. Road Warriors are used by private militias, clans and political groups, as well as groups of looters. About 20 similar workshops operate throughout the city.
Many vehicles not protected by enough firepower are targets for ambush. Gunmen shoot the driver, steal the vehicle and sell it to a workshop. Later, its top shorn away and a heavy gun mounted on the chassis, a new Road Warrior emerges from a workshop.
Mr. Osman explains the first rule in Mogadishu today: "If you want security, you must make your own."
Like most Somalis, he wants peace but hedges his bets. "This country needs peace like it needs food," he says. But 90 percent of his work is to "prepare the war machinery" for the United Somali Congress, he adds. To complete the paradox, some foreign relief agencies depend on Mr. Osman's militia for protection. It is the only way they can work here, they say.
At least 19 bandit groups in Mogadishu are closely linked to various clans and work from well-defended bases in the city. Robbery, extortion and murder are their stock in trade.
Looters keep the markets full of stolen goods and the workshops busy. In a typical robbery, looters seal off a block of apartments and strip them clean.
In Mogadishu 15 to 20 people are shot every day, according to Dr. Rias Soudan of the relief agency Medecins Sans Frontieres. "All my patients now keep their guns with them in the hospital," he says.
Chief of Police Ahmed Jamma Mousa says that during a recent two-week disarmament campaign, police collected 200 guns, most often by engaging in shootouts. That small number, a drop in Mogadishu's bottomless bucket of weapons, left seven policemen dead -- a "reasonable rate," according to Chief Ahmed Jamma.
During the shootout, some looters were killed by police. According to witnesses tribal elders forced the police to pay a $7,000 "death tax" for each "accidental" death.
Part of the problem is that Mogadishu's police force is unrecognizable on the street. The 4,000 regular police officers have only 1,000 uniforms between them. They are supplemented by 4,000 to 5,000 shadowy assistants from the military ranks of the United Somali Congress' Hawiye clan. They are given only haphazard on-the-job training: "Whatever we can put into their heads," Chief Ahmed Jamma says.
"They have not been paid for eight months and are leaning on expectations," he adds.
For all its abuses, the Siad Barre regime did control conflict between rival clans. But many here fear a return to dictatorship.
Mr. Ali Mahdi and Gen. Muhammad Farah Aidid, the United Somali Congress chairman and chief of staff, represent separate factions of the Hawiye clan. The one-time allies now accuse each other of waiting to be the next General Siad Barre. Their conflict boiled over in October into four days of fighting in the capital that left at least 300 dead and 700 wounded.
The president blames the general for trying to stage a coup, and the general accuses the president of an assassination attempt.
Mr. Ali Mahdi did not include the general in his new Cabinet, a move which General Aidid says will lead to further bloodshed. General Aidid says he has 7,000 United Somali Congress fighters at his disposal and controls 90 percent of Mogadishu. He claims he does "not want to remove Ali Mahdi by force. If he does not resign, he will become a dictator, and the Somali people will not allow that." But a young aide says that "Aidid called on the military to advance and wipe out all thugs."
Mr. Ali Mahdi says most United Somali Congress troops are loyal to him. He expects to bring back "justice, law and order, free elections and Somali pride." But because of the recent fighting, he has had to move to a safe house on the far edge of town.
Such flagrant disparity within the ruling clan does not bode well for the future.