Rogue Libyan general's 'coup' against Islamists unleashes wave of violence

Khalifa Haftar survived a suicide bomb attack Wednesday. He is battling Islamist militias backed by allies in Libya's parliament. Meanwhile, a Red Cross official was shot dead in Sirte. 

By , Staff writer

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    An ambulance on Wednesday carries the body of a staff member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who was killed by armed men near the city of Sirte, Libya.
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A rogue Libyan ex-general's effort to eliminate the Islamist militias that have flourished in Libya since 2011 has unleashed a wave of violence and chaos. Reuters described the situation in Libya today as "anarchy," while The Washington Post warned of a "full-blown civil war."

On Wednesday, that former general, Khalifa Haftar, survived an assassination attempt outside Benghazi, Libya's second city. Meanwhile, in Sirte, a Red Cross worker was killed, and in Tripoli, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the prime minister's office. Ahmed Maiteeq has only been in office since last month, and is Libya's fifth prime minister since the removal of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Mr. Maiteeq was elected during a chaotic parliamentary session. Today he lost a court ruling on the legality of that election, Reuters reports.

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Libya's political instability has allowed armed groups to become as pivotal in the country's direction as its elected leaders. Mr. Haftar says his unsanctioned campaign against Islamist militias is needed because the government is too weak to bring them to heel, but the government has decried his actions – which including airstrikes – as a coup. Haftar's forces also stormed the parliament last week.

Yesterday a suicide bomber blew up a jeep outside his base outside Benghazi. Haftar vowed "a strong response."

In an interview with The Washington Post last month, Haftar denied that he is seeking power:

TWP: Will you seek any kind of leadership role in government in the future?

KH: No, not now. Now the only important thing on our minds is security for all our citizens, and we want to form an army that will protect the entire country, and a police force to protect all the civilians. All this needs to be done and this is our goal. But, as for the future, I'm not considering it now.

...

[W]e are protecting Libya and our people, but we are protecting them from an enemy who is everyone’s enemy, the enemy of all free countries, a terrorist enemy with every meaning of the word terrorist in it. And they are from all different countries, Mali, Niger, Afghanistan, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, India, Britain, even Americans, putting themselves on the death path. There are many from eastern countries and they came together because they are all killers.

Yesterday a Swiss Red Cross official was killed in Sirte, a coastal city in central Libya that is largely outside government control, when his car was stopped by armed men in civilian clothing, the Associated Press reports.

Driver Ali Mohamed told The Associated Press that three masked attackers wearing civilian clothes stopped them at gunpoint at a checkpoint as they were on their way back from the meeting.

"They started shouting 'put your hands up,' and we put our hands up but they started shooting," he said. "We just crumpled to the car's floor but all of the firing was at the back seat where Michael [Greub, a Swiss national,] was sitting."

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Libyan military officials said that Islamist militias, including the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia, are a growing problem in Sirte, according to AP.

In an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times, Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate with the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warns that Haftar's unilateral move sets a "dangerous precedent" of "coup politics and military takeover" in Libya. 

In Benghazi, friends of mine speak of exhaustion and terror at the city's daily grind of violence. Others are indeed disenchanted with the Islamist-dominated congress, which has done little to move the country forward. Haftar is seen as either a hero ridding the country of a violent scourge and setting it back (if his promises are to be believed) on a democratic path, or a strongman in waiting, like so many other Arab leaders, ready to ride to power on a populist wave. 

The chronic instability is leading to growing calls for a strongman figure to lead the country, not unlike Egypt's newly elected president and former military chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Mr. Wehrey writes.

Haftar appears to be answering this appeal: In news statements, the gray-haired general has declared his goal to "purge" Libya of the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorists. He recently spoke on behalf of a "Supreme Military Council" whose name seems directly borrowed from Egypt. He has introduced a dangerous discourse of "cleansing" and no compromise into a country that has a history of consensus-building. The results do not bode well for Libya's stability.

... Today in Libya it is no longer possible to speak of an army versus militias but rather of many armies, each claiming legitimacy and authority. Even before the latest violence, a plan by the U.S. — along with Britain, Turkey, Morocco and Italy — to train what is known as a "general purpose force" was plagued with unknowns about the force's inclusivity, mission and civilian oversight. Given Libya's polarization, it could've easily ended up becoming a palace guard or the private militia of an ambitious leader such as Haftar.

In Al Monitor, a Libyan living overseas writes about his impression when he returned after three years away. He is from Bani Walid, one of the last towns to fall to the rebels during the 2011 revolution.

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