By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud told Reuters on Tuesday he expected a new military drive by African Union and Somali forces to start in the next few days to push al Shabaab militants from more territory.
Al Shabaab ruled most of the southern region of Somalia from 2006 until 2011 when African forces drove them out of Mogadishu and then expelled them from most urban centers in a nation that has faced war and turmoil for more than two decades.
But the al Qaeda-aligned Islamists, who sought to impose a very strict version of Islamic sharia law, still hold swathes of territory. Mohamud said those areas would be the focus of the operation, building on successes from another push earlier this year that reduced al Shabaab's territorial control.
"Operation Indian Ocean is going to start within the next few days," Mohamud said in an interview during a visit to Washington, where he is attending a summit of African leaders.
"We have all the measures in place to make sure that Operation Indian Ocean will definitely succeed."
The president dismissed a recent spate of attacks in Mogadishu -- which include the killing of a lawmaker last week -- as the "last kick" of a group he said was being squeezed by Somalia and African Union forces.
He said the same of al Shabaab's attacks overseas, which include an attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last year which killed 67 people.
"This is a sign of weakness," Mohamud said. "The geographic area of al Shabaab has (shrunken) and now they are changing their tactics."
Mohamud said he felt confident in his own personal security despite attempts on his life over the years. Militants have repeatedly attacked the presidential compound, including a car bomb strike in July.
"Al Shabaab has been attempting to eliminate myself and other top leadership. But they couldn’t succeed in the past and they can’t succeed in the future," he said.
Mohamud's visit to the United States comes at a time of deepening ties between the two countries. The United States in June announced it would appoint its first ambassador to Somalia since 1993, and Somalia's first ambassador to Washington in over two decades accompanied Mohamud's delegation during his visit.
"(The) U.S.-Somali relationship is improving," Mohamud said, adding "we are talking about strategic partnership."
(Additional reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Michael Perry)