Somalia has not had an effective central government since 1991, when the former government was toppled by clan militias that later turned on each other. For decades, generals, warlords and warrior types have reduced this once languid coastal country in Eastern Africa to rubble. Somalia remains a raging battle zone today, with jihadists pouring in from overseas, intent on toppling the transitional government.

The moderate Islamist government of Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a former high school teacher who became president in 2009, is widely considered to be the country's best chance for stability in decades. The Somali leader has with both widespread grass-roots support inside the country and extensive help from outside nations, according to analysts and many Somalis.

Much of the world is counting on Sheik Sharif to tackle piracy and beat back the spread of militant Islam -- two Somali problems that have flared into major geopolitical ones. Al-Qaida appears to be drawing closer to Somali insurgents, particularly an extremist group called Al-Shabab, in an effort to turn the country into a launching pad for global jihad.

After years of ambivalence about Somalia, the United States is playing an increasingly active role here, and shipped 40 tons of weapons to Somalia to keep Sheik Sharif's government alive. The United Nations and Western countries are pumping in hundreds of millions of dollars for the government's security. At the same time, Al-Shabab is kept afloat by an influx of weapons and fighters, much of it reported to be flowing through neighboring Eritrea.

NEW YORK TIMES