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Libya Struggles to Curb Militias as Chaos Grows

By Anthony Shadid, The New York Times News Service | name.
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Tripoli, Libya - As the militiamen saw it, they had the best of intentions. They assaulted another militia at a seaside base here this week to rescue a woman who had been abducted. When the guns fell silent, briefly, the scene that unfolded felt as chaotic as Libya’s revolution these days — a government whose authority extends no further than its offices, militias whose swagger comes from guns far too plentiful and residents whose patience fades with every volley of gunfire that cracks at night.

The woman was soon freed. The base was theirs. And the plunder began.

“Nothing gets taken out!” shouted one of the militiamen, trying to enforce order.

It did anyway: a box of grenades, rusted heavy machine guns, ammunition belts, grenade launchers, crates of bottled water and an aquarium propped improbably on a moped. Men from a half-dozen militias ferried out the goods, occasionally firing into the air. They fought over looted cars, then shot them up when they did not get their way.

“This is destruction!” complained Nouri Ftais, a 51-year-old commander, who offered a rare, unheeded voice of reason. “We’re destroying Libya with our bare hands.”

The country that witnessed the Arab world’s most sweeping revolution is foundering. So is its capital, where a semblance of normality has returned after the chaotic days of the fall of Tripoli last August. But no one would consider a city ordinary where militiamen tortured to death an urbane former diplomat two weeks ago, where hundreds of refugees deemed loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi waited hopelessly in a camp and where a government official acknowledged that “freedom is a problem.” Much about the scene on Wednesday was lamentable, perhaps because the discord was so commonplace.

“Some of it is really overwhelming,” said Ashur Shamis, an adviser to Libya’s interim prime minister, Abdel-Rahim el-Keeb. “But somehow we have this crazy notion that we can defeat it.”

There remains optimism in Tripoli, not least because the country sits atop so much oil. But Mr. Keeb’s government, formed Nov. 28, has found itself virtually paralyzed by rivalries that have forced it to divvy up power along lines of regions and personalities, by unfulfillable expectations that Colonel Qaddafi’s fall would bring prosperity, and by a powerlessness so marked that the national army is treated as if it were another militia.

The government could do little as local grievances gave rise last month to clashes in Bani Walid, once a Qaddafi stronghold, and between towns in the Nafusah Mountains, where rival fighters, each claiming to represent the revolution, slugged it out with guns, grenades and artillery.

“It’s a government for a crisis,” Mr. Shamis said, in an office outfitted in the sharp angles of glass and chrome. “It’s a crisis government. It is impossible to deliver everything.”

Graffiti in Tripoli still plays on Colonel Qaddafi’s most memorable speech last year, when he vowed to fight house to house, alley to alley. “Who are you?” he taunted, seeming to offer his best impression of Tony Montana in “Scarface.”

“Who am I?” the words written over his cartoonish portrait answered back.

Across from Mr. Shamis’s office a new slogan has appeared.

“Where are you?” it asks.

The question underlines the issue of legitimacy, which remains the most pressing matter in revolutionary Libya. Officials hope that elections in May or June can do what they did in Egypt and Tunisia: convey authority to an elected body that can claim the mantle of popular will. But Iraq remains a counterpoint. There, elections after the American invasion widened divisions so dangerously that they helped unleash a civil war.

A sense of entropy lingers here. Some state employees have gone without salaries for a year, and Mr. Shamis acknowledged that the government had no idea how to channel enough money into the economy so that it would be felt in the streets. Tripoli residents complain about a lack of transparency in government decisions. Ministries still seem paralyzed by the tendency, instilled during the dictatorship, to defer every decision to the top.

“They’re sitting on their chairs, they’re drinking coffee and they’re drafting projects that stay in the realm of their imagination,” said Israa Ahwass, a 20-year-old pharmacy student at Tripoli University, which was guarded by a knot of militiamen.

“How can you change people overnight?” interrupted her friend, Naima Mohammed, who is also studying pharmacy. “It’s been 42 years of ignorance.”

“They’re not doing a single thing,” Ms. Ahwass replied.

Like Tunisia to the west and Egypt to the east, Libya is confronting a diversity Colonel Qaddafi denied so strenuously that he tried to convince the minority Berbers that they were, in fact, Arabs. The revolution has its variation on this theme, appeals that mirror the fears of social fracturing. “No to discord” and “No to tribalism,” declare slogans that adorn the streets.

They all hint at the truth that the Libyan author Hisham Matar evoked in his first novel, “In the Country of Men,” when he wrote, “Nationalism is as thin as a thread, perhaps that’s why many feel that it needs to be anxiously guarded.” Authority here peels like an onion, imposed by militias bearing the stamp of towns elsewhere in the west, neighborhoods in the capital, even its streets.

“Where is the rule of law?” asked Ashraf al-Kiki, a vendor who had gone to a police station, the Tripoli Military Council and a militia from Zintan in pursuit of compensation after militiamen shot holes in his car. The scent of the kebab he grilled wafted over speakers playing the national anthem. “This is the rule of force, not the rule of law.”

The force at the Tripoli airport is the powerful militia from Zintan, a mountain town south of the capital, which played a role in Tripoli’s fall and still holds prisoner Colonel Qaddafi’s most prominent son, Seif al-Islam. By its count, it has 1,000 men at the airport, and one of its commanders there, Abdel-Mawla Bilaid, a 50-year-old man in fatigues, parroted the cavalier pronouncements of the government he helped overthrow. “Everything’s going 100 percent right,” he declared.

Mr. Shamis, the prime minister’s adviser, acknowledged the government’s inability to do anything about the militia’s presence. “Let it be for now,” he said.

That was the sense of the commander, too. “There’s no reason for us to leave,” Mr. Bilaid said. “The Libyan people want us to stay here.”

The militias are proving to be the scourge of the revolution’s aftermath. Though they have dismantled most of their checkpoints in the capital, they remain a force, here and elsewhere. A Human Rights Watch researcher estimated there are 250 separate militias in the coastal city of Misurata, the scene of perhaps the fiercest battle of the revolution. In recent months those militias have become the most loathed in the country.

Residents say some of the fighters have sought to preserve law and order in the midst of government helplessness. Militias from Benghazi and Zintan are trying to protect a refugee camp of 1,500 people driven from their homes in Tawergha by fighters from Misurata, who bitterly blamed them for aiding Colonel Qaddafi’s assault on their town. Since the Tawerghans arrived in the camp, which once housed Turkish construction workers in Tripoli, Misurata militiamen have staged raids five or six times there despite the presence of the other militias, detaining dozens, many of them still in custody.

“Nobody holds back the Misuratans,” said Jumaa Ageela, an elder there.

Bashir Brebesh said the same was true for the militias in Tripoli. On Jan. 19, his 62-year-old father, Omar, a former Libyan diplomat in Paris, was called in for questioning by militiamen from Zintan. The next day, the family found his body at a hospital in Zintan. His nose was broken, as were his ribs. The nails had been pulled from his toes, they said. His skull was fractured, and his body bore signs of burns from cigarettes.

The militia told the family that the men responsible had been arrested, an assurance Mr. Brebesh said offered little consolation. “We feel we are alone,” he said.

“They’re putting themselves as the policeman, as the judge and as the executioner,” said Mr. Brebesh, 32, a neurology resident in Canada, who came home after learning of his father’s death. He inhaled deeply. “Did they not have enough dignity to just shoot him in the head?” he asked. “It’s so monstrous. Did they enjoy hearing him scream?”

The government has acknowledged the torture and detentions, but it admits that the police and Justice Ministry are not up to the task of stopping them. On Tuesday, it sent out a text message on cellphones, pleading for the militias to stop.

“People are turning up dead in detention at an alarming rate,” said Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who was compiling evidence in Libya last month. “If this was happening under any Arab dictatorship, there would be an outcry.”

At the seaside base this week, the looting ended before midnight. Not much was left at the compound, which once belonged to Colonel Qaddafi’s son Saadi — a red beret, a car battery, a rusted ammunition case and an empty bottle of Tunisian wine.

But as on most nights, militias returned to contest other spots in the city, demarcating their turf. Like a winter squall, their shooting thundered over the Mediterranean seafront into the early hours. In the dark, no one could read the slogans in Quds Square. “Because the price was the blood of our children, let’s unify, let’s show tolerance and let’s live together,” one read. In the dark, no one knew who was firing.

“What’s wrong with them?” asked Mahmoud Mgairish. He stood near the square the next morning, as a soft sun seemed to wash the streets. “I don’t know where this country is heading,” he went on. “I swear to God, this will never get untangled.”

This article, "Libya Struggles to Curb Militias as Chaos Grows," originally appeared at The New York Times News Service.


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