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Explainer: Is Libya Plunging Into Civil War?

Spent bullet shells litter the ground as a member of the Islamist-linked militia of Misurata walks past following three days of battles in the area of Tripoli's international airport on August 21.
Spent bullet shells litter the ground as a member of the Islamist-linked militia of Misurata walks past following three days of battles in the area of Tripoli's international airport on August 21.
By Frud Bezhan

Inter-militia fighting is wreaking havoc in Libya, which is witnessing the worst violence since the 2011 overthrow and killing of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

Fierce fighting is raging between powerful Islamist and nationalist militias in the capital, Tripoli, and in the eastern city of Benghazi. Without a functioning national army, the government has been unable to rein in the militias and contain the surging violence.

With a parallel political struggle for power between Libya's former and newly elected parliament, many fear the country could slide into all-out civil war.

The Main Players

In Tripoli, the two main players in the violence are Islamist-affiliated forces from Misurata and the Zintan militia brigades. The two groups, both from western Libya, have turned Tripoli into a battlefield, forcing the United Nations and embassies to evacuate their staff.

Misurata fighters claimed a decisive victory on August 23 when they wrested control of Tripoli's international airport from the Zintan militia, which had held it for the past three years. Misurata fighters have taken loose control of Tripoli, with Zintan forces fleeing to the outskirts of the city.

In the east, in the city of Benghazi, there is a different collection of armed groups. One is Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist Islamist militia group that was blamed for the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, along with three other embassy staff.

Fighting has been raging between Ansar al-Sharia and two nationalist militias -- the Al-Saiqa militias made up of remnants of Libya's special forces, and a movement led by renegade General Khalifa Haftar, who in May launched an operation targeting Islamist militias in Benghazi. Haftar and the Zintan militias are in a loose alliance.

Libya's vast, oil-rich south is controlled by the leader of the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), Ibrahim Jadhran. The PFG was tasked by the government with protecting the country's crucial oil installations. But Jadhran has accused the government of corruption and until recently had blocked Libya's oil-export terminals.

Meanwhile, war planes have targeted Misurata positions in Tripoli and Islamist-held territory in Benghazi. Misurata forces have blamed the air strikes on Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP on August 25 that U.A.E. jets launched two attacks in seven days on Misurata fighters using bases in Egypt. The U.A.E. has not commented, while Cairo denied any involvement.

Government Unable To Rein In Militias

The weak central government lacks a functioning national army and relies on various militias for public security. But the government is not able to control the militias, which receive salaries from the government but act according to the wishes of their own commanders.

The Zintan militias, for example, were tasked by the government with guarding Tripoli's international airport since taking control of it in 2011. But they refused to leave. The Misurata fighters are also on the Defense Ministry's payroll. To complicate matters further, both groups have come under attack from the Libya Revolutionary Operations Room, another group on the state's payroll that until October 2013 was tasked by the government with protecting the capital.

In the campaign to overthrow Qaddafi, many militias currently fighting each other were comrades-in-arms. But many have since become enemies on the battlefield.

"Over time, the different groups have associated themselves with different political currents, primarily nationalists and Islamists, and that automatically pits one against the other," says George Joffe, a Libya expert and lecturer at the University of Cambridge, who estimates that around 350 different militias are currently operating in Libya.

"Each of them has represented an autonomous power center and has been very unwilling to share power with other groups. On top of all that, there is the question of the regional and tribal identities of the groups involved."

Two Competing Governments

As fighting rages across Libya, there has been a parallel struggle between two competing parliaments. Libya's new parliament, elected on June 25, is based in the eastern city of Tobruk. The former parliament, which has refused to cede power, is based in Tripoli.

The new parliament is nationalist in complexion compared to the Islamist-dominated former parliament. Both parliaments have refused to recognize the legitimacy of the other.

Libya's former parliament reconvened on August 25 and voted unanimously to disband the country's current interim government and appoint a new "national salvation government" headed by Omar al-Hassi, an Islamist.

Meanwhile, lawmakers from the newly elected parliament have branded the Islamists in control of Tripoli "terrorist organizations" and have fired the army's chief of staff over his alleged links to Islamists and appointed a successor who has declared a war against "terrorists."

Libya's interim government, headed by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, has been unable to return to Tripoli.

Path Toward Civil War

In such a situation, many analysts are predicting a full-blown civil war. Joffe says that "it's becoming very close to a situation where civil war is becoming inevitable," and sees a civil war being fought on two fronts.

"One [will be] a struggle between nationalists and Islamists, and the Islamists were worsted in the [June] elections but are determined to maintain power," Joffe says. "The other will be between east and west -- whether the country remains as a single unit and whether it is controlled from Tripoli or whether the east in Cyrenaica breaks away and is controlled from Benghazi."


Frud Bezhan

Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org. 

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