BAIDOA, Somalia, May 1 (Reuters) - Somali leaders expressed concern but could not confirm growing reports that Washington is financing a group of powerful Mogadishu warlords who have styled themselves as an anti-terrorism coalition.
The warlords have been involved in several bouts of fighting with militia linked to Islamic leaders. About 100 people have been killed in the violence, the worst in Mogadishu in years.
The perception of U.S. involvement has given rise to new fears that Mogadishu's militia battles are shifting from the commercial to the ideological, and creating a new arena for Islamic militants to fight what they call Washington's war on Islam.
The United States has been rumoured to have paid the coalition in exchange for help tracking down al Qaeda militants who move freely amid the anarchy in Somalia.
"We have no official communication but these rumours are everywhere," Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Gedi told reporters on Monday when asked about reports of U.S. cash arriving in Mogadishu.
The United States has never directly confirmed or denied suggestions it backed warlords in the Horn of Africa country of about 10 million, which has been mired in anarchy since its last national president was ousted in 1991.
"We do not expect the American government to just pump dollars to Somali people to create problems. They are our friends and we expect friendship from them," Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan added.
The two leaders were speaking in Baidoa after meeting with Kjell Magne Bondevik, the U.N. Special Humanitarian Envoy for the Horn of Africa, who was in the region assessing the effects of a crushing drought.
MOGADISHU IN MONTHS?
Both Somali leaders, who recently patched up a rift that paralysed their interim government for a year, expressed hope they will soon be able to move to Mogadishu from a temporary base in Baidoa.
"There is a plan and strategy to move to the capital city of Mogadishu as soon as we prepare ourselves ... in terms of months, not years," Gedi said.
But the renewed fighting has complicated the prospect by raising new security concerns and threatening the delicate reconciliation between the prime minister and parliament speaker.
A central part of their rift was the location of the seat of government and most of the warlords in the coalition involved in the fighting were members of the faction that opposed moving to anywhere but Mogadishu.
The interim government two weeks ago voted to make the south-central city of Baidoa its new seat, after more than 1,000 militiamen were persuaded to move out to make it secure.
It is the government's second base inside Somalia after it first moved back home to Jowhar, a provincial town north of Mogadishu, last year.
Until then, the fledgling administration had not left neighbouring Kenya, where it was formed in late 2004 after two years of peace talks.
Bondevik told the two leaders that many still see Somalia as a synonym for "chaos and war and lack of security. I urge you to create a new image of responsible and responsive parliament and government that cares for its people."
The government's newfound unity and reconciliation efforts are moving toward that end, Hassan said.
"You see that we are standing side by side. Physically, we are here and absolutely, morally, we are together," he said, flanked by Gedi. "Now we have united in Baidoa. Somalia had gone into a very deep hole; now we are at a turning point."