Western regimes that trumpeted the ‘liberation’ of Libya with so much fanfare are now silent as rival militias, former military officers and others battle it out for control. The country is so dangerous that most western diplomats have fled.
The western do-gooders that ‘liberated’ Libya with so much fanfare from the clutches of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi have long fled the country leaving people at the non-existent mercies of bloodthirsty thugs brandishing Kalashnikovs. Fighting has been raging in and around Tripoli airport that remains closed to air traffic. Fighting between rival militias on July 27 on Tripoli’s central airport road also engulfed two major fuel tanks with thick smoke billowing into the sky.
Almost all western embassies have shut down and their staff has fled. The only exceptions are the British and French, not because they are brave but because they are trying to find a way to get out of the burning city. In oil rich Libya, fuel prices are 30 times what they were in pre-war years but even then little or no fuel is available. Gas (petrol) stations are closed due to lawlessness and the more enterprising people risk their lives by hiving fuel out of storage tanks. If caught, they face the rough and ready justice of the militias.
Brega Oil and Gas Co, the country’s biggest oil depot is controlled by militias from Zintan. They are challenged by the Misratans that attacked Tripoli airport on July 13 destroying one Air Bus 320 as well as a large number of smaller aircraft. The airport remains closed to all flights.
The Zintan militias—al-Qaqaa led by Uthman Mulayqithah and al-Sawaiq led by Isam al-Trabulsi—are being helped and coordinated by the former Defence Minister Osama al-Juwali. The former parliamentarian Salah Badi leads the Misratans. Both sides claim to be fighting for Islam and denounce rivals as apostates. There are other pockets of militias in different parts of the country with little or no central authority and the government existing only in name.
In Benghazi, a separate battle is raging between former members of Qaddafi’s army and the self-styled Islamic militias. Khalifa Hifter, a former army chief of staff in the Qaddafi era is fighting the militias. He has vowed to eliminate them. It is widely believed that Hifter is working for the Americans that are chafing at the militia’s brazen attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. The US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens and two of his guards were killed. It was reported at the time that the Benghazi consulate was being used as a CIA black site for prisoners, a charge not denied by the Americans.
Hifter’s mercenary activities have attracted other former military top brass such as former air force chief Saqr al-Jaroushi, head of the navy Hassan Abu-Shannaq, and the air defense forces chief Jomaa al-Abani to his side. Such high profile figures, however, have not been able to prevent the air base under Hifter’s control in Benghazi from being overrun by an ‘Islamic’ militia. His mercenary army fled the base after it came under heavy fire on July 29.
Hifter launched his campaign in May in what he claimed was in response to the violence unleashed by Islamic militias. The other reason cited was their open discussion of a purge of senior military officers. While his opposition to the purging of military officers attracted some of these elements fearing for their own positions, their presence has made little difference. Hifter’s claim that he intends to establish what he calls the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces in Libya was another reason that attracted the thugs in uniform to his side. They were perhaps also attracted by American and British support for his activities. Mercenaries always know what side to join: whoever pays the piper calls the tune.
In the lawless situation that characterizes Libya today, arms are readily available. Militias have raided government armories and are now equipped with heavy weapons including artillery and anti-aircraft guns. Many of these weapons have also found their way into Syria, thanks to payments made by the Saudis. There is a close nexus between the Saudis and the terrorist bands operating in different parts of the world. While unable to fight themselves, the Saudis use their oil wealth to finance mercenaries. What is revealing is that the Saudis’ American masters while claiming to be fighting terrorism appear to have no problem with the House of Saud financing such activities.
Another revealing factor about Libya is that the various militias have no ideological commitment. They seem to operate on the basis of tribal loyalty or whoever pays them. Thus while Hifter’s army of thugs is opposed by Ansar al-Sharia led by Ali al-Zahawi, there are other militias supporting him. These include al-Saiqa Brigade led by Colonel Wanis Bukhamada. Ezzedine Wakwak, an influential tribal leader is also supporting Hifter.
Opposing him are three Islamic militias: Ismail al-Sallabi's Februrary 17 Martyrs Brigade, the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade led by Mohamad al-Gharabi, and most important, Zahawi’s Ansar al-Sharia. There are no permanent alliances or fixed front lines since various militias make gains one day and lose ground the next. On July 29, a coalition of militia forces announced capture of the Libyan army’s Special Forces headquarters in Benghazi after several days of fighting.
Special Forces official Fadel al-Hassi confirmed the following day “We have withdrawn from the army base after heavy shelling.” At least 30 people were killed in Benghazi during heavy clashes. Army Special Forces used warplanes and rockets but were unable to repel the equally heavily armed militias that have anti-aircraft weapons. A Libyan air force jet was shot down during fighting.
Amid all the fighting, life for ordinary people is extremely precarious. There is shortage of food and fuel as well as no security of life and limb. Lawlessness has escalated so much that people do not venture outside their homes after sunset. In a traditional Islamic society like Libya where it is normal, indeed almost a part of life, for people to offer Maghrib (evening) and Isha (night) salat in the masjid, these are completely deserted now. Drive-by shootings are common.
Following the June election that few people bothered to vote in, the newly elected and renamed body, the House of Representatives, decided to move the legislative assembly from Tripoli to Benghazi. This was done ostensibly because Tripoli was unsafe. Benghazi is no less dangerous and the body’s members are planning to relocate even farther east to Tobruk. It seems they are running out of places to hide in.
Libya’s Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani—umpteenth since the overthrow and lynching of Qaddafi—has appealed for international help to confront the militias. So far no help has been forthcoming; instead, the British ambassador Michael Aron met al-Thani on July 23 asking him to get the militias to disarm! The billion dollar question is: who will bell the cat?