Militias in Libya hard to tame as renegade general steps in
Gen. Khalifa Hifter is seen in a file photo taken Wednesday, September 14, 2011, in Zawiyah, 25 miles east of Tripoli. Hifter lived in exile in northern Virginia for 24 years before returning to Libya.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Against the backdrop of a rising sun and an imposing lion, renegade Libyan general Khalifa Hifter strides over rugged terrain in combat fatigues and black boots.
The propaganda imagery on Haftar's Facebook page is part of his bid to rally the nation against Islamist militias in Libya's east and their political allies in the capital, Tripoli. It borrows from that employed by Egypt's soldier-turned-president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who overthrew an elected Islamist leader before securing power at the ballot box. If Hifter harbors similar ambitions, his will be a far harder task.
Successive Libyan governments have failed to unify the forces that removed Moammar Gadhafi from power three years ago, with the chaos halting the recovery of crude output in the North African producer. The country has descended into a patchwork of virtual fiefdoms ruled by gunmen with motivations ranging from a desire to control oil wealth to religious ideology. Prime ministers have been attacked; scores of members of the security forces killed. Parliament barely functions.
"Haftar's message of eradicating extremists touched a nerve with Libyans, who have grown tired of waiting for security and prosperity," said Asma Magariaf, a U.S.-based analyst whose father briefly became Libya's de facto leader after Gadhafi's fall. "He's attempting to mimic a Sisi-style coup. But while the alliances he's building are critically important for his operation," they may not hold, she said.
Magariaf cited the example of Col. Wanis Abukhamada, the head of army special forces who joined Haftar's campaign, which has so far focused mainly on the second city of Benghazi. While saying he backs a "war on terrorism," he hasn't pledged loyalty to the former general, Magariaf said.
Key groups supporting Hifter include the al-Qaqaa and al- Sawaiq Brigades from the western Zintan region that have helped protect the fledgling government; forces loyal to Ibrahim al-Jedran, who's seeking autonomy for the oil-rich east from his base south of Benghazi; as well as various army, air force and navy units. Many allies were barred from office because of their links to Gadhafi under the 2013 Isolation Law.
The Islamist-led parliament has denounced Haftar's campaign as an attempted coup and, in a bid to curb support for the offensive, called for elections June 25. Fighters from Misrata and other militias nominally under government authority have rejected Haftar's appeals or refused to take sides.
That unwillingness of powerful actors to join the fray, mediation by tribal leaders and a feeling among anti-Islamist groups they can win this month's ballot are easing concerns Haftar's campaign may plunge Libya into civil war, said Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa analyst at Eurasia Group in London.
"It looks like fighting will continue in Benghazi and in the east, but it's unlikely to spill over in the west as the battle in Tripoli remains political," he said.
Three of Haftar's guards were killed in a suicide attack Wednesday on one of his bases near Benghazi, the SkyNews Arabia channel reported. "The retaliation will take place in several cities, and focus on Benghazi," Hifter told the Abu Dhabi-based network. "They will pay a dear price."
Haftar's characterization of Libya's struggle as primarily a fight between Islamists and non-Islamists simplifies a more complex reality often dominated by local loyalties and competing political agendas.
Still, groups such as Ansar al Sharia, accused of killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi in 2012, make attractive targets. The group has denounced Haftar's campaign as a war on Islam and has vowed to fight his Libyan National Army.
Since Stevens was killed, violence has escalated in Benghazi. Hundreds of army personnel were assassinated in the city in past year, according to Abukhamada. Journalists have also been killed, churches and schools attacked.
"Islamic militants have been targeting army and police officers, they kill and decapitate them in order not to see them function," he said.
As violence escalates, the loss of Libyan oil production, down about 90 percent from its pre-conflict level, has boosted the price of Brent, the benchmark for half the world's traded crude. On May 21, Citigroup raised its 2014 Brent price forecast to $109 a barrel, from $104 a barrel, citing the Ukraine-Russia crisis and supply uncertainty, including from Libya.
A native of Libya's east, Hifter began his army career under King Idris before helping oust the monarch and install Gadhafi in 1969, said Juma Missury, an Interior Ministry official.
After a quick rise through the military ranks, Hifter directed failed interventions in Chad in the 1980s. He fell out with Gadhafi and fled to the U.S., returning to Libya in 2011, when he was instrumental in leading eastern rebel forces.
While Libyans have demonstrated in support of Haftar's Operation Dignity, he remains a controversial figure. That's mostly due to "his past role in Gadhafi's army, his widely assumed cooperation with U.S. intelligence" after leaving Libya, and his personal ambitions, Wolfram Lacher, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, wrote in a report.
After Haftar's initial assault on Islamists in Benghazi, his supporters stormed the parliament. Confusion reigns in Tripoli, where interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni is challenging a contested vote that saw Ahmed Maiteg named premier. Hifter says he wants a council of judges to form an emergency government until elections and won't seek power unless the people ask him too.
"What his ultimate objective is, I have no idea but this campaign may potentially mark a watershed," Ronald Bruce St John, author of 14 books on Libya including 'Libya: From Colony to Independence,' said. "You are seeing someone trying to draw a line, say enough is enough with the Islamists. It's a conservative Islamic country but not one interested in radical Islam."
Reported with assistance from Salma El Wardany in Cairo and Saleh Sarrar in Tripoli.