A few weeks ago, an odd thing happened in the utter anarchy of Somalia.
The bandits who presided over the treacherous road from Mogadishu to Afgoi were gone. The pick-up trucks packed with gun-brandishing youths who manned some 50 roadblocks along the 20-mile stretch were nonexistent.
The combined militia forces of five Islamic courts cleared the road. It was the second time the courts - that view Islamic law as the only antidote to Somalia's chaos - acted together. In April, they took control of the Bukhara market in Mogadishu. This second action reveals a unity of purpose largely unseen in the capital since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991.
"Islamic law is the only thing that will save this country," says Sheikh Hassan Sheikh Mohammed Adde, a cleric who merged and presides over the Joint Islamic Courts.
Sheikh Hassan is clear about his political ambition and his determination to impose Islamic law over Somalia. Although it is close to stricter forms of Islam, Somalia has held fast to a tradition of Sunni religious moderation for nearly a millennium.
But beyond Sheikh Hassan's ambitions, analysts say the issue is whether the courts will act as conduits for Islamic fundamentalism - or merely help bring about an organized state, and then compete fairly for power.
Somalia devolved into a state of near anarchy nearly a decade ago. The guns of different warlords have kept it at the bottom of the United Nations index of human development. Life expectancy is 43 years, infant mortality one of the highest in Africa, with 1 out of every 4 children likely to die before the age of five. In a country where nearly everyone is armed, crime is rampant.
Yet as recently as 1992, Somalia was at the center of the world's attention. A colossal relief operation to feed victims of famine saved the lives of thousands, but soon became embroiled in factional warfare for the control of Mogadishu. In October 1993, 18 US Marines were killed in a gunfight by militiamen loyal to warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid. That prompted the first military intervention mounted by the UN for humanitarian purposes to haul down its flag and leave Somalia to itself.