* No chance of an al Qaeda-inspired popular uprising
* President Ahmed has political momentum behind him
* West senses Ahmed has real opportunity to rebuild Somalia
* Al Shabaab poses armed threat but politically on defensive
By William Maclean
LONDON, March 20 (Reuters) - An al Qaeda rallying cry for an Islamist uprising in Somalia will fall on deaf ears: Its violent brand of militancy repels ordinary people and real hope now exists that the country’s new leader can end 18 years of chaos.
Osama bin Laden’s appeal on Thursday for Somalis to topple President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed is an attempt to boost spirits among increasingly unpopular al Qaeda-aligned fighters, rather than a realistic political action plan, analysts said.
While bin Laden’s local allies pose a real military menace, most Somalis appear to place more faith in the 42-year-old former teacher and his record of building community stability than they do in al Qaeda’s message of war, experts say.
"There is no possibility of that revolt happening. This is primarily designed to boost the morale of Shabaab," said Rashid Abdi, a Somali expert at the International Crisis Group.
"The statement shows al Qaeda is ambitious in Somalia, but politically, Sharif Ahmed has the bulk of the country with him."
Al Shabaab is a powerful al Qaeda-aligned group of Islamist fighters who control large swathes of territory and, together with like-minded groups, are waging an insurgency against the fledgling administration and its foreign backers.
But set against this military threat is a profound sense among ordinary Somalis that Ahmed, a moderate Islamist elected at U.N.-hosted talks in Djibouti in January, represents the country’s best chance in years of a new future.
Analysts say Ahmed has a real possibility of healing some of the worst rifts in the 10 million population given his Islamist roots and a feeling in the West that he should now be given a chance to try to stabilise the Horn of Africa nation.
Abdi Samatar, a Somalia scholar and professor of geography and global studies at the University of Minnesota, said: "Bin Laden can pontificate all he wants, but that will not change this unfavourable political landscape for al Shabaab."
BIG DANGERS ABOUND
"The will of the people is to say ‘No’ to war, and that is a major obstacle to bin Laden."
Al Shabaab’s main foe until the end of January was an Ethiopian occupation force sent into the country with tacit U.S. approval in 2006 to crush supposed al Qaeda activity.
Ethiopia’s presence provided the fighters with a nationalist raison d’etre that many Somalis understood.
But the completion of the Ethiopian pull-out kicked away an important political prop and Shabaab appears to be struggling to remain a cohesive force in its absence, analysts said.
Big dangers do abound for Ahmed, not least the risk of assassination by al Shabaab, which continues to receive funding from foreign sources and guards its secrets well — not easy in a garrulous society with a highly developed bush telegraph.
As yet, Ahmed has little in the way of military muscle: Government troops and some 3,500 African peacekeepers control just a few districts of Mogadishu.
Also, the new leader faces big challenges: Ending violence and piracy, building ties to the new U.S. administration, rebuilding roads and ports and keeping at bay predatory warlords and businessmen with an interest in minimising state power.
But broad changes to the political landscape in the past six months means improved prospects for tackling those tasks and ending the clan-fuelled anarchy of the past 18 years.
The top development is Ahmed’s own arrival in power: He inspires confidence because he headed the sharia courts movement that defeated Mogadishu’s powerful warlords and brought some stability to the capital and most of south Somalia in 2006.
In the event, his success was short-lived: The West accused the Islamic Courts Union of links to terrorist groups and Ethiopia sent troops to drive the Islamists from power.
Ahmed fled the country and set up an anti-Ethiopian opposition group. Now he has returned from exile he is trying to re-establish leadership on the ground and reach out to Islamist fighters who were part of his sharia courts movement.
Ahmed’s moderate Islamist roots may prove to be helpful in that task, and in a parallel effort to persuade some Arab states to provide funding for his administration.
He has said he backs sharia law for Somalia — a statement that could soften opposition to him among Islamist groups, although his brand of sharia is unlikely to the strictest form favoured by Afghanistan’s Taliban rebels.
The Ethiopians have gone, ending an occupation often seen in Washington as part of the "war on terror" but perceived locally as a blatant violation of Somali sovereignty.
Analysts say concerns remain about Ethiopia’s role. Ethiopia has long been accused of preferring a weak Somalia government it can dominate. Ethiopia says the reverse is the case.
Whatever the truth, the current emphasis in Washington for the moment is on a diplomatic, nation-building approach to counter-terrorism and rebuilding failed states like Somalia.
"The new administration in Washington is not inclined to go the military route in Somalia," said David Shinn, a Horn of Africa analyst at George Washington University.
Somalia expert John Prendergast, co-chairman of the U.S.-based advocacy group the Enough Project, said the West’s best policy options were diplomatic rather than military.
"The best thing the West could do would be to patiently support this unity government’s attempts to win over the various constituencies in the country and to slowly and steady extend of state control," he said. (Editing by Matthew Tostevin)