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Is Libya Sliding Toward Civil War?

  • Charles Recknagel

The very militias that liberated Libya from the previous regime now appear to be the greatest threat to security.

The very militias that liberated Libya from the previous regime now appear to be the greatest threat to security.

It's been more than two months since antiregime fighters captured and killed former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

But the National Transitional Council (NTC) that now rules Libya has yet to be able to consolidate its hold over the fractious militias that toppled the old regime.

Just how restive conditions in Libya remain was highlighted this week when members of two militias fought over territory in Tripoli.

The clash on January 3 reportedly left two dead as the gunmen battled using machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and antiaircraft guns in the heart of the capital.

The clash shocked the city's residents and signaled how far Libya still has to go to become peaceful again.

"This happened after the revolution but not before," a relative of one of the men killed in the fighting said. "They said there will be a government and order. Twenty-three fighters came to claim territory and to kill young boys. They killed young boys for territory."

But if ordinary residents of the city were worried by the clash, the government seemed even more so.

The head of the NTC, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, warned that if the country's many militias did not hand in their weapons and either join the country's fledgling security services or return home, the country faced the danger of civil war.

He said the government was now between "bitter" options. "We deal with these violations strictly and put the Libyans in a military confrontation which we don't accept," he said, "or we split and there will be a civil war."

A Divided Tripoli

Correspondents report that Tripoli today is a patchwork of fiefdoms held by rival militias that arrived in the capital months ago to chase out Qaddafi and have since refused to leave.

Each of the militias appears to believe that its power to influence the future course of Libyan politics depends on maintaining an armed presence in Tripoli.

Two of the militias are homegrown groups from Tripoli itself. One is led by Abdel Hakim Belhadj, an Islamist who spent time in Taliban camps and is the NTC-backed military council commander in the capital. The other is led by Abdullah Naker, a former electronics engineer who is openly critical of Belhadj.

But there also militias from outside. There is one from Misurata, east of Tripoli; another from Zintan, southwest of the capital; another from the east of Libya; and another representing the country's Berber minority. All maintain territories and checkpoints, with their presence increasing after nightfall.

Correspondents say the fighting usually breaks out when members of one militia try to cross through territory of another while refusing to disarm.

It is just that kind of dispute that is believed to have led to this week's fighting, when fighters from Belhadj's military council detained a member of the Misurata militia.

"Unfortunately, this dispute led to the killing of four people," Belhadj told reporters on January 4. "The people responsible for this were arrested and they will face justice."

But the fact that Belhadj himself is head of one of the combatant militias may not reassure the other militias that his justice will be impartial.

No Army = No Security = No Army

Meanwhile, the national army and police are rarely seen as they await to be restructured.

The interim government appointed a chief of staff for the new national army this week, but it is not clear whether the move will resolve or exacerbate the militia problem.

Immediately after the appointment of Yousef al-Manqoush, a retired general from Misurata, two of the many umbrella groups among the militias rejected the move.

Many militias say they will not disband and tell their members to join the police or army until the country is stable and there is a government powerful enough to employ and protect them.

The question for Libya now is whether the country can possibly move toward peaceful elections before the militia problem is solved. "If there is no security, there will be no law, no development and no elections," Jalil said on January 4. "People are taking the law into their own hands."

The government this week published a draft law setting out procedures for electing a 200-member assembly that is expected to write the country's new constitution in June -- the first step toward as-yet-unscheduled general elections.

The only hope that the interim government can return Libya to normal life lies in the fact that, nominally at least, all the militia groups still pledge loyalty to the NTC. But it is a fragile unity, and one that could easily fray further should the groups continue fighting for influence and territory.

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