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Who is Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Hifter?

Libyan militia commander General Khalifa Hifter attends a meeting in Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 14, 2017. Hifter, who commands the self-styled Libya National Army, ordered his troops on Thursday, April 4, 2019, to march on the capital, Tripoli.

AP

By EMILY TAMKIN | The Washington Post | Published: April 6, 2019

Forces led by Khalifa Hifter, known as the Libya National Army, pushed west toward Tripoli on Friday, after Hifter announced his intention to seize the city. Tripoli is controlled by the Presidential Council and Government of National Accord, which is backed by the United Nations.

Militia groups that support the accord government have reportedly captured 100 of Hifter's soldiers, but the fighting risks returning the country to the worst violence seen since the 2011 civil war.

But who is Hifter? And why has he sent troops toward Tripoli?

Hifter, now 75, first became a military man in 1966 under King Idris I. Just three years later, he joined Moammar Gadhafi's coup against the crown. Hifter spent the next two decades rising through the ranks of the Libyan military, and in the 1980s he was a commander in the country's conflict with Chad. But Chadian forces took him captive, and in 1987 he defected, pledging his loyalty to the National Salvation Front for Libya, which was U.S.-backed.

The National Salvation Front for Libya called for Gadhafi to be overthrown. Hifter became prominent in the Front's military component - the Libya National Army. President Ronald Reagan, who hoped to use Libyan dissidents to oust Gadhafi, dubbed Hifter "the mad dog of the Middle East." He eventually settled in Langley, Virginia, where he maintained ties with Gadhafi foes as a U.S. citizen - but returned back to Libya after the start of 2011 civil war that saw Gadhafi ousted.

But he failed to become the country's new military leader and so returned to Virginia.

Then in 2014 he announced a military coup via video address, complaining that the central government had not done enough to take on increasingly powerful armed Islamist groups.

The coup failed, but Hifter wasn't done. A few months later, Hifter launched "Operation Dignity," which was meant to clear the country's east of militant groups. Hifter gained support in the east, as well as from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt - but also, despite claiming to have liberated Benghazi, left the city in ruins, and furthered divisions within Libya.

Those divisions are in turn arguably made worse by the fact that Hifter, flaunting the requirements of the U.N. peace deal, refused to recognize the unity government in Tripoli. Hifter's refusal to recognize the unity government has for years been seen as a major frustration to the achievement of stability in Libya. Hifter's precondition is that it gets the backing of lawmakers in Tobruk, a city in eastern Libya that has vied for power with Tripoli since 2014.

On Saturday, the U.N. Security Council tried once more to move Hifter. This time the call came for Hifter's military forces to stop their movements, and "called on all parties to resume dialogue and deliver on their commitments to engage constructively with the U.N. political process."
 

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