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Tension rises between rebel and civilian leaders in Libya

The dispute over a plan to bring rebel fighters under civilian authority involves Mahmoud Jibril, who serves as a kind of interim prime minister, and rebel commander Abdel-Hakim Belhaj.

September 12, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Engineering student and rebel fighter Ahmed Hamza, 23, left, prays on the outskirts of Bani Walid, Libya, where the fighters advanced again into the Kadafi stronghold, moving in to a northern strip of the town.
Engineering student and rebel fighter Ahmed Hamza, 23, left, prays on the… (Alexandre Meneghini, Associated…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — A plan approved Sunday by Libya's transitional leadership team to bring rebel fighters under civilian authority has stoked tension between the new civilian leadership and the rebel commander whose troops patrol the city.

The dispute involves two of post-revolutionary Libya's best-known figures — Mahmoud Jibril, who serves as a kind of interim prime minister, and Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, Tripoli's top rebel military leader. Their differing backgrounds give some hint of the diversity of leadership in the new Libya.

Jibril is a U.S.-educated technocrat who spent the civil war in the relative safety of the eastern city of Benghazi. Belhaj is a front-line commander and former mujahedin in Afghanistan who says he was kidnapped and tortured by the CIA and turned over to the forces of Moammar Kadafi, who jailed him for six years.

Behind the dustup is a broader question of what role civilians and armed men will play in the new Libya, a nation now awash in weapons and still at war with Kadafi holdouts.

Council figures, including Jibril, are tasked with overseeing the nation's transition into a representative democracy after more than four decades of autocratic rule. Part of that task is disarming irregular militias and getting armed rebels without civilian jobs into regular police and military units.

Belhaj has pledged his loyalty to the Transitional National Council, which was based in the eastern city of Benghazi but is slowly moving to Tripoli. But it is widely known that Belhaj is upset at council plans to put military units under its umbrella.

"This proposal will divide everyone," said one pro-Belhaj military official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

On Sunday, Belhaj, who theoretically has thousands of troops under his command, did not appear at the news conference announcing the plan. Jibril said the military leader had other commitments and denied there were any hard feelings.

"There is no problem between him [Belhaj] and us," said Jibril, who referred to the rebel fighters as "heroes" who had liberated the capital with a minimum of bloodshed. He called Belhaj "a very important member" of the military command structure.

How exactly the relationship between the civilian leadership and the disparate military units will work remains unclear. Libya is still without a functioning government, and several towns outside the capital remain loyal to Kadafi, who was ousted last month when rebels took over Tripoli.

Some rebel fighters have grumbled that their voices are not being heard while a group of civilians who mostly sat out the war seeks to fulfill its task of creating a government. The civilian leadership has vowed to help integrate the fighters into the new Libya. How the nation will be disarmed looms as a major challenge.

Meanwhile, news agencies reported that rebel troops advanced again into one of Kadafi's strongholds, the desert town of Bani Walid, about 90 miles southeast of Tripoli. Heavy resistance from pro-Kadafi forces was reported as rebels moved into a northern strip of town. On Saturday, rebel forces withdrew from the city under heavy fire.

Two other cities, coastal Surt, Kadafi's birthplace, and the southern municipality of Sabha, also remain in the hands of Kadafi loyalists. Offensives may also be launched to take those cities, officials in Tripoli said. The transitional government has said it cannot declare the nation liberated until the entire country is free of Kadafi's rule. A declaration of liberation is needed before the country can start on a timetable for elections and the drafting of a constitution.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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