Cracks emerge among Libya's rebels, from front lines to Tripoli

NTC chairman Mahmoud Jalil called on Libya's rebels to overcome the friction, tribalism, and political squabbling that has marred rebel leadership at a critical time of transition.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters
Anti-Qaddafi fighters drive back from the front line in Bani Walid on Monday, Sept. 12. Forces of Libya's new rulers met 'ferocious' street-by-street resistance during an assault on one of the last bastions loyal to Muammar Qaddafi, but were edging toward the ousted ruler's birthplace of Sirte.

From Libya’s still-active front lines to the halls of power in Tripoli, divisions are emerging among revolutionaries and their leaders even before “liberation” has been officially declared.

Muammar Qaddafi may be in hiding, his loyalists clinging to just three primary outposts – Bani Walid, Mr. Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte, and Sabha in the south. But as Libya’s new rulers try to consolidate control and bring governance to the disparate forces that ended 42 years of dictatorship, political struggles are already under way.

Those close to the Tripoli military commander Abdelhakim Belhadj are rejecting the bid by the US-educated interim Premier Mahmoud Jibril to put all anti-Qaddafi forces under the control of the National Transitional Council (NTC).

That friction reflects broader divisions between the NTC – which has ruled rebel-held eastern Libya from Benghazi during the six-month rebellion – and power centers in Tripoli and western Libya, which are underrepresented.

On the street, fighters often dismiss talk of divisions, still basking in the post-Qaddafi air of celebration. To illustrate unity on Monday night, one officer from Benghazi, who stood guard on a Tripoli thoroughfare, handed his assault rifle to a bystander from Tripoli.

“There is no difference between Benghazi and Tripoli. All of us are one. All Libya is one,” said the officer, Saleh al-Mabruk, when asked about high-level power struggles.

“It is my wish to be by this brother from Benghazi,” replied Mohammed al-Arabi, the middle-aged bystander, as he held Mr. Mabruk’s gun. “We are proud to meet you on Libyan free land, which gave thousands of martyrs.”

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Divisions at the top

Such warmth, however, no longer defines relations at the top. NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil arrived in Tripoli from Benghazi for the first time on Saturday, and national reconciliation is his top priority.

"All revolutionaries: Avoid violating the sanctity of homes ... avoid harming the women and children of the former regime," said Mr. Jalil, emphasizing unity as he addressed thousands of flag-waving Libyans in his first public appearance in Tripoli. "If anyone is responsible for something, they alone are responsible. Children and wives have nothing to do with it."

Jalil's No. 2, Mr. Jibril, has already come under fire during his week in town.

“[Jibril] is not welcome here. He represents nobody,” said Anees al-Sharif, a spokesman for the Tripoli military council. “We just got rid of one dictator. We don’t want another one.”

Announcing the push to civilian rule late on Saturday, Jibril went out of his way to thank the “heroes” of the revolution, who fought – aided by NATO airstrikes – to topple the former regime.

Jibril gave special praise to the “leaders” of the fighting groups, especially those “who made sure that victory was maintained in the capital, Tripoli.” Talks were continuing with units across the country and were “going well,” he said.

“Of course, this is all to implement the legitimacy of the only legitimate state of government in Libya, which is in the NTC,” said Jibril. He also sought to paper over cracks with the military by praising Tripoli commander Belhadj – a former leader of anti-regime Islamists who was “rendered” by the CIA and MI6 to Libya in 2004, where he says he was tortured and held for seven years in prison.

Mr. Belhadj is a “very important member” of the High National Security Council, Jibril said when asked about the criticism. “He is part of us. We work together, and there is no gap. There is no problem between us. In fact, we work together very well.”

Jibril said that a new transitional government would be announced within 10 days, with representatives from all of Libya, “including those under siege that have not been liberated yet.”

Yet he also stated that all armed forces would now fall “under the umbrella of the NTC.”

At the rally Monday, Jalil gave a glimpse of the NTC's political aims. "We seek to establish a state governed by law and welfare," he said. "Sharia [Islamic law] should be the main source of law."

Squabbles on the front lines

Divisions among anti-Qaddafi forces extend far beyond Tripoli, however. In one town on the edge of the western mountains, a dozen anti-Qaddafi fighters killed each other in a skirmish on Sunday, according to Agence France-Presse.

Along the front lines, too, fighters have squabbled while trying to advance on Qaddafi strongholds. At Bani Walid, a bastion of Qaddafi’s Warfallah tribe 90 miles southeast of Tripoli, units from Tripoli and elsewhere left the front line on Saturday and Sunday nights and returned to the capital.

They left the fight to those who hailed from Bani Walid itself, angry about the behavior of their fellow anti-Qaddafi forces.

One member of the Tripoli Brigade, Abdul Adim Moharam, confirms several reports about the rebel advance into the town late Sunday night.

“As soon as they got in the houses, the Bani Walid fighters would say, ‘This is my cousin’s house. Leave it!’ and then when we moved on, we would get shot at from there,” says Mr. Moharam about other fighters in his unit who took part.

Another problem that angered the Tripoli fighters was snipers. “They would catch them, and a Bani Walid fighter would say, ‘This is my cousin. I’ll take care of it,’ and a few hours later they would be free,” says Moharam, a computer engineer on security duty in the capital.

“This is not our war, it’s not organized,” Moharam adds.

Tougher Misurata troops – who on Monday engaged in artillery and rocket duels on the southeast outskirts of the town – should lead the assault, Moharam says. “For us, we don’t care [about the divisions]. Soon Libya will all be free.”

'Traitors' blamed for ambush on rebel fighters

Moharam says that he thought the resulting deaths of anti-Qaddafi troops on the northern edge of Bani Walid, perhaps seven, all from Tripoli, were not part of a deliberate ambush.

Others were not so charitable.

“We believe there are traitors among them,” fighter Mohammed al-Gahdi, from Khoms, told Reuters on Monday. He suspected the lethal ambush was the result of a pro-Qaddafi informant. “When we go into the city we trust no one. We don’t need Bani Walid fighters. We need bigger weapons and artillery.”

The friction between the fighters did not surprise some Libyans.

“From the beginning, the Warfallah [tribe] and Bani Walid were always going to be a complex component of this uprising, not just because the differences in opinion, but because of how extreme the two opinions are: very extremely pro-Qaddafi, very extremely anti-Qaddafi,” says Nizar Mhani, an anti-Qaddafi activist in Tripoli.

“So it’s going to be tough, but it’s going to be the opening to the other places. How Bani Walid goes, Sirte will follow, [and] Sabha will follow quickly,” says Mr. Mhani. “It’s going to be fundamental, but the regime has fallen, so there is an inevitability about which way this is going to go eventually.… There’s nothing left to fight for.”

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