Trouble Brewing In Libya

Jim Brown
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The civil war is not even over and Gaddafi has not yet been found but a new civil conflict is bubbling up between the various tribes and ideological interests. Gaddafi kept the tribes isolated and encouraged hostilities as a way to prevent a unified uprising to throw him out of power.

Now that Gaddafi is gone the temporary truce between the various factions is coming back to haunt the transitional government. Regional rivalries between fighters from the western mountains and Tripoli have in recent days come perilously close to exploding into open warfare in the capital. In some neighborhoods, multiple leaders claim sovereignty for their groups amid a deepening battle over the makeup of a citywide military council.

The brewing tensions could be the beginning of a healthy and robust political contest between Libya's competing regional, tribal and ideological interests. But there are also fears that the vacuum created by a transitional period which has dragged on without a new interim government could cause these tensions to explode into destabilizing internecine bloodshed around the country.

The rivalry between fighters from Tripoli and the western mountain town of Zintan includes many of the older hostilities that are threatening to break up the former allies, pitting rural against urban, ex-military officers versus irregular militias and Islamist against those with a more secular vision for Libya.

The more-secular leaders in Tripoli voice concerns over the Islamist leanings of many of the commanders who now hold sway as they clash over seats on the city's military council. Similar divisions are also present within the country's Islamist leadership, where regional loyalties add to the confrontations over ideology.

Mehdi Herrati, the commander of the Tripoli Brigade, has threatened to resign his leadership twice in recent days during confrontational meetings with neighborhood militia leaders who feel excluded from decision making in the capital.

The city's top military commander, the controversial Islamist Abdel Hakim Belhaj is facing a growing chorus of discontent, including from fellow commanders within his own ranks. Belhaj fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later became a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militant group dedicated to overthrowing Gaddafi. He was captured by the Central Intelligence Agency in Malaysia after the Sept. 11 attacks and eventually handed over to Gaddafi's regime after being interrogated in Thailand and Hong Kong.

Critics are uncomfortable with Belhaj's television appearances and his exaggerated claims about his role in ousting Gaddafi, which they fear shows his political ambition. Others worry about his Islamist militant background.

The prominent Islamist leader from eastern Libya, Ismail Sallabi, said he too is skeptical of Belhaj because he seems to be pushing Eastern Libyan leaders aside. Frictions among the different factions in the alliance against Gaddafi are threatening hopes to establish a unity government in Libya.

As criticisms of Belhaj have mounted in recent days, he has largely disappeared from public view. A senior Tripoli commander close to Belhaj said he is working to address the concerns of local neighborhood militia leaders and hopes to announce the makeup of an expanded and more inclusive city military council within coming days.

Zintan's leadership is composed mostly of defected ex-military officers, whereas the Tripoli leadership is mainly newly minted militia leaders, many of whom have strong Islamist backgrounds. Mistrust and tension has plagued the relationship between the two groups of fighters throughout the conflict and throughout Libya.

Tensions between the groups fighting against Gaddafi became evident during the earlier days of the conflict. The assassination in July of General Abdel Fatah Younis, a top military commander killed hours after he was detained on orders from a rebel minister and a panel of judges, exposed conflicts within the factions.

With the alliance in command of most of Libya and the National Transitional Council in charge, frictions are flaring up again. "Everybody is getting their knives out," said Mohammed Benrasali, a leader from Misrata and head of Tripoli's civilian stabilization team.

Most Zintan's leaders back Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jabril, who is deeply unpopular in the capital, and other parts of Libya, and is especially mistrusted by many of the country's Islamist leaders.

"The problems with the Zintanis is they are all uneducated, they drink, they drive around at night in muddy pickup trucks with guns, and they won't leave," said a commander in Tripoli.

A Western official in Libya said he believes the rivalry also has regional dimensions, with Qatar, the tiny Gulf emirate, throwing its weight by Tripoli's leadership, particularly Belhaj, while Qatar's Gulf rival, the United Arab Emirates, has backed the Zintan leadership.

The top commander of Zintan's forces in the capital, defected army colonel Mukhtar al-Akhdar, complains that the city's international airport remains closed, while the Tripoli-controlled military airport is running a full schedule of military and civilian flights.

"Tripoli is for whom?" he asked. "It's for all Libyans. It's our capital too. This is the essence of the matter."

Zintan's fighters played a storied role in the six-month conflict, fighting off a blistering weeks-long siege by pro-Gadhafi forces, and then driving those forces out of Western Libya and eventually opening the path into the capital. Tripoli's fighters, by comparison, had it easy, in the eyes of Zintanis and many other Libyans, since the capital fell within just a few days amid light resistance.

This is just a snapshot of a couple of the rivalries currently festering. There are more than 140 tribes in Libya. The major ammunition dumps have been seeing constant convoys of any vehicle that will role from all over Libya with teams of scavengers looting everything they can carry from rifles, pistols and ammo to artillery shells and rockets. The tribes are arming themselves and the task of keeping the peace is going to get a lot harder in the months ahead.

The job of creating a new government from scratch that is supported by the tribes is going to be nearly impossible. There is a strong potential for a divided Libya or even another civil war that could turn into a long term guerrilla war with sabotage and roadside IEDs.

The Libyan oil minister believes full production will be restored in 15-18 months. I would bet it is a lot longer once the second war begins. They say an armed society is a polite society but arming 140 tribes with decades of tribal hostility and then trying to force a new government upon them with things like taxes and rules of conduct is not going to be an easy task.

Jim Brown

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