Thursday, May 29, 2014

CIA-Trained Rebel Battles Militias For Control In Libya
Damage from rebels who shot up a facility in Tripoli.
MAY 28, 2014
New York Times

BENGHAZI, Libya — The road to the general’s base is filled with soldiers who salute, wear matching uniforms and drive glinting new Toyotas, in a display of martial discipline and power rare for this country.

But the soldiers’ security, for the moment, remains in doubt. The base is hidden behind a new metal gate, as wide as two roads and 25 feet tall, a hulking symbol of the threats that have gathered around the general, Khalifa Hifter, since he declared war on the country’s Islamist militia leaders and lawmakers nearly two weeks ago.

General Hifter has cast himself in the role of strongman and national protector, the man who will “correct” Libya’s faltering revolution and purge the country of extremists. But he is a polarizing figure, as notorious for his ambition as for his shifting allegiances, and many people here wonder whether he will amount to more than a warlord, advancing his own narrow interests.

He has gathered a corps of soldiers, air force units and militiamen that he has declared to be the Libyan national army, and has used it to mount assaults on the bases of powerful Islamist militias in the east, including several airstrikes on Wednesday. Libya’s multitude of militias have been a major focus of public anger, not least for repeatedly refusing to disarm.

And General Hifter has won unexpected support for his campaign from a wide variety of political, tribal and militia leaders, forging alliances that have upended Libya’s fragile balance of power.

Thousands of Libyans, weary of the political violence that stalks their cities, have held demonstrations endorsing the goals of General Hifter’s campaign, which he has named Operation Dignity. But there are also fears about what General Hifter may have unleashed, in a country whose neighbors increasingly view it as a font of extremism and regional instability.

The fighting in the last two weeks has been some of the fiercest Libya has seen since Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011. At least 70 people were killed in the days after General Hifter’s assault on the militias. This week, gunmen assassinated one of Libya’s most prominent newspaper editors in Benghazi, while in Tripoli, the government said assailants attempted to kill the prime minister.

The country’s foreign allies have rushed to appoint envoys to try to defuse the crisis. The United States has warned American citizens to leave the country immediately, and has sent an amphibious assault ship with 1,000 Marines to the region.

“I wish the blood had stopped after the death of Qaddafi,” said Adel el-Hassi, a former militia leader in Benghazi who now supports General Hifter. “Sadly, the blood will start now,” he said.

The airstrikes General Hifter ordered on Wednesday were aimed at one of Benghazi’s most prominent militias — in retaliation, a spokesman said, for the killing of the newspaper editor, Muftah Buzaid.

“Every militia is responsible for the murders, and we will attack them until they surrender,” said General Hifter’s deputy, Staff Brigadier Sager al-Goroushi.

General Hifter, 71, was one of the Libyan army officers who supported the 1969 coup against the monarchy that brought Colonel Qaddafi to power. He led Libyan forces during the country’s failed war in Chad in the 1980s and was seized as a prisoner of war. After his release, he joined the anti-Qaddafi opposition, and was reportedly trained by American intelligence officials in a failed effort to topple Colonel Qaddafi.

He then settled in Northern Virginia, and returned to Libya to participate in the 2011 revolt against Colonel Qaddafi, his former ally. He fought alongside the rebel forces — including many of the militia leaders he is now attacking — and is remembered for his repeated, unsuccessful attempts to claim leadership of the whole rebel army.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, General Hifter said that he had no political ambitions beyond his current campaign, which he asserted was a part of a global fight against terrorism. He has denied receiving any backing from foreign countries, as his opponents frequently say he has, but he said he would welcome foreign weapons and financial aid if he could get them.

“We are now fighting not only on behalf of Libya,” he said, “but on behalf of the whole world.”

General Hifter’s military campaign has won him some concessions in Tripoli, the capital, including a pledge to hold new parliamentary elections in June. But other demands, including the formation of an emergency government supervised by Libya’s supreme court, have so far been ignored.

General Hifter’s campaign has stoked new divisions among rival militias in western Libya, but not, so far, the kind of sustained fighting seen in the east.

For the moment, the front lines are in Benghazi. General Hifter’s troops operate from several bases, including one outside the city, while the militias have generally retreated to the farmland on the outskirts of town. Fighting flares nightly around the city’s edge, with heavy weapons deployed in some areas emptied of residents.

“They have declared war on each other,” Anas Toweir, a radiologist from Benghazi, said of General Hifter and the local militias. “No one is quite sure what’s going on. Everyone is hiding in their homes.”

General Hifter’s allies in the east are said to include former Qaddafi army soldiers, fighters from towns east of Benghazi and federalists demanding more autonomy for the region. His opponents, including hard-core jihadist groups and mainstream Islamist brigades, grew out of the 2011 uprising and remain a powerful political bloc, referring to themselves as Libya’s “revolutionaries.”

The militia leaders have reacted with defiance to General Hifter’s campaign, accusing him of fomenting a “coup” and vowing fierce resistance.

“He who has lost his dignity in Chad is not going to regain it in Benghazi,” said Ismail Sallabi, who comes from a family of prominent Islamists. “We see Hifter exactly as we saw Qaddafi.”

Still, after repeated attacks by General Hifter, the Islamist militiamen seem to have lost their swagger lately, wearing balaclavas behind their checkpoints and rifling through the cars of passing motorists, sensing treachery everywhere.

They are reeling, too, from a chorus of public disapproval. Many Libyans say they have put aside their misgivings about General Hifter for the moment to deal with the more dangerous scourge of the militias, which they blame for assassinations, kidnappings and other violence meant to settle old scores.

Hundreds of people attended a demonstration in support of General Hifter last Friday, some of them holding pictures of relatives whom they said were killed by groups like Ansar al-Shariah, a radical militia that took part in the attack that killed the American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, in Benghazi in 2012.

“We don’t want to hear the word ‘revolutionary’ anymore,” said one man, a doctor who refused to give his name. “We want the police and the army. How hard is it to get that message across?'”

The United States has sent confusing signals about the standoff. The State Department has said it does not condone General Hifter’s offensive, and has warned against the use of violence. At the same time, the United States ambassador in Libya, Deborah Jones, said recently in Washington that she could not “condemn” General Hifter’s actions, partly because he was pursuing extremist groups that Washington considers terrorist organizations.

Mr. Hassi, the former Benghazi militia leader, said he did not think much of General Hifter. “If there was safety and security in the country, we would not have needed him,” Mr. Hassi said. “But he was the only person who could unify the army. That’s why I support him.”

“The battle will take a long time, and will not just be in Benghazi,” he added. “It will be in all of Libya.”

Osama al-Fitori reported from Benghazi, and Kareem Fahim from Cairo. Suliman Ali Zway and Nizar Sarieldin contributed reporting from Tripoli, Libya.