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Libyan authorities struggle to rein in militias

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TRIPOLI, Libya — The main stage in Martyrs’ Square, the Libyan capital’s central plaza, has been plastered with signs.

No to carrying weapons, they read. No to randomly firing bullets and rockets. No to the continued military presence here and in other liberated cities.

The signs reflect the concerns of residents, who say they are fed up with the militias that have taken over the streets of Tripoli in the past two months.

“We are not feeling safe,” said Aman Sad, 38, a nurse walking in the square. “The ones who are carrying weapons are young men who are not trained.”

But asking revolutionaries to leave town after a revolution is a delicate matter, especially for a government still fighting on at least two fronts. As it works to create a cohesive national army, Libya’s Transitional National Council must also find a place for the thousands of men who formed separate brigades that were instrumental in toppling autocrat Moammar Gaddafi.

The council must do so while facing internal struggles over issues such as how closely to hew to Islamic vs. secular ideologies, what to do with people associated with the old government and how to satisfy towns that lost many fighters and are demanding a greater say in the new order.

Since sweeping into Tripoli in August, out-of-town revolutionaries have been striding around with Kalashnikovs and pistols that they sometimes fire skyward in displays of bravado. Residents of the capital are tiring of them, and skirmishes have erupted between outside brigades and Tripoli fighters, who say they can secure the city on their own.

The head of Tripoli’s military council, Abdulhakim Belhadj, called this week for unauthorized militias to leave the city. But some brigade members say they do not recognize him as their leader.

And with a national army that is in the process of reforming and has no commander, some say the militias’ presence is necessary.

If the outside brigades leave Tripoli, “car bombs will go off the next day,” said Mohamed Benrasali, a council member from Misurata who leads Libya’s civilian stabilization team.

Waiting for Sirte to fall

Benrasali said the TNC plans to move the brigades and heavy weaponry into barracks on the outskirts of Tripoli, while about 5,000 lightly armed, uniformed troops who will secure strategic areas and 3,000 others who will help carry out policing duties will remain in the city. Similar forces will be placed in other cities and will remain until there is an elected government, he said.

Libya moved one step closer to that objective this week when its leaders announced that they plan to declare the country liberated upon the fall of Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town, even if fighting continues in other parts. At that point, an interim government will be established, leading toward a constitution and elections.

But disarmament will be difficult as long as there are competing groups that don’t trust one another and don’t have faith in the system, said Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute in London. “The crucial question is whether these militias can be persuaded to disarm once a political process is underway and there are legitimate means to power.”

For now, the brigades create an “aura” that strikes fear in Gaddafi loyalists, Benrasali said “They’re so invincible and so ruthless at the same time. If they leave, honestly, I will leave. Tripoli will not be safe.”

Status of fighters, weapons

Hisham Krekshi, deputy chairman of the Tripoli local council that oversees the city’s military council, said that although it is important not to anger the revolutionaries, “slowly people have to go back to school, dentists have to go back to the clinic, workers have to go back to work. I’m sure in a few months these people will dissolve back into society.”

On Wednesday, the TNC decreed that one group, the Supreme Security Committee, would oversee security for Tripoli, that heavy and medium weapons should be out of the city in a week and that brigades would need to leave public buildings, Krekshi said.

Libya’s new leaders hope that some militia members will join the police or the national army. But many are dismissive of the army, which during Gaddafi’s time was weak compared with the militias led by his sons.

The army has some experienced soldiers, including defectors who fought alongside revolutionary brigades. And 500 new army recruits completed training this week. But a commander has not yet been chosen to replace Abdul Fattah Younis, a former Gaddafi general who joined the rebels and was assassinated in July.

Militia members who don’t want to join the army could be offered positions in a national guard or given allowances as they seek work in the civil sector, said Atif El-Hasia, deputy head of operations of the army’s 1st Infantry Brigade.

Many are from backwater towns with few prospects. “The only thing they live on right now is pride — they eat, drink and breathe pride,” Hasia said. “Standing at a checkpoint, where people give them food and say, ‘You’re doing very well, God bless you,’ if you take this away, what are they going to do the next day?”

The TNC has called for people to turn in weapons or register them, and officials say they may institute a weapons buyback program. But many arms remain unaccounted for. Gaddafi handed out 16,000 to 18,000 weapons in the waning days of his rule, Hasia said.

Libya’s international allies also are worried about large weapons caches — including surface-to-air missiles — that were left unguarded as Tripoli fell. U.S. Ambassador Gene Cretz has called the missing weapons “an area of intense concern for the White House.”

In Tripoli, residents complain that the men with guns are scaring children, and some have accused revolutionaries from the western city of Zintan of taking weapons and prisoners, as well as luxury cars, personal watercraft and even an elephant from the zoo, back to their mountainous home town.

The Zintani brigades, which played a significant role in ousting Gaddafi, have set up bases around Tripoli, including one at a beachside villa complex that once housed his cronies. On Tuesday, young fighters in pickup trucks there drove past graffiti on walls that proclaimed, “Zintanis are lions.”

“Without us, none of this would have happened,” said Omar al-Obeidi, deputy commander of a Zintani brigade. “We were the ones who opened up Tripoli. In the end, Tripoli is not for Tripolitanians; Tripoli is for all the people.”

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