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In Libya, rebels still dominate Tripoli streets

By Alice Fordham,

Tripoli, Libya — Despite repeated pledges by Libya’s transitional government to find jobs for the rebel fighters who forced Moammar Gaddafi from power, tens of thousands of them are still operating in armed militia groups, patrolling streets and guarding buildings in Tripoli and other cities.

The fighters’ presence adds to an atmosphere of insecurity, officials and ordinary Libyans say, as efforts to incorporate more than 50,000 fighters into Defense and Interior Ministry forces has lagged. Authorities say the presence of the irregular forces has made it difficult to distinguish between legitimate fighters and criminals, thousands of whom were freed by rebel forces and by Gaddafi during the months of fighting that eventually toppled the autocratic leader.

Adding to the problem, many of the fighters say they will respect only an elected government and do not recognize the unelected transitional government.

With only the barest of police forces and only an embryonic army in place, fighting sometimes breaks out among the heavily armed men.

“There is no safety,” said Amal, a teacher who declined to give her last name, who was shopping in the capital. “There are fights between one area and another,” she added, describing how violence can quickly escalate when fighters occasionally turn to the heavy artillery they acquired during the war.

For the most part, orderly

After the liberation of the Libyan capital in August by a wave of NATO-backed revolutionary fighters, there was chaos, electricity and water shortages, and fighting in the streets. In some ways, life since then seems to have returned to normal, with shops and cafes open late, far fewer security checkpoints, and the rattle of celebratory gunfire largely silenced.

The unwelcome presence of fighters from outside the city has mostly ended, and heavy weapons are rarely visible in the streets. The revolutionary fighters who remain are, for the most part, organized and orderly, patrolling alongside a rudimentary police force or guarding banks, hotels and government buildings, despite rarely being paid. Different militias control different areas of the city, but the fighters say they coordinate with one another and with authorities to provide security.

Although overall violence has lessened, there were clashes in central Tripoli between local brigades and fighters from the city of Misurata on Jan. 3. Several people reportedly died. Fighting also flared up south of the capital Jan. 13, when one tribal militia charged another with harboring Gaddafi loyalists.

This week, there has been fighting in the former Gaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid between residents and rebel militias, Ian Martin, the head of the U.N. mission in the country,told a meeting of the Security Council on Wednesday.

“Although authorities have successfully contained these and other more minor incidents that continue to take place across the country on a regular basis, there is the ever-present possibility that similar outbreaks of violence could escalate and widen in scope,” Martin said.

A slow process

Libya’s transitional government, which was appointed in November and is preparing for summer elections, has repeatedly stressed that its first priority is to incorporate fighters into the police and army.

The process is not easy or fast. Youssef Mangoush, head of the armed forces, began work early this month. He said he is confident that he will include 25,000 rebels in the army that is being built but acknowledged that he will face many challenges assembling a force out of the chaotic remnants of Gaddafi’s security structure.

“You can’t compare this to Tunisia or Egypt,” he said, where largely peaceful uprisings toppled presidents Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak early last year. “In those places, there were government institutions; you just changed the people. But in Libya, we didn’t have institutions at all.”

At the Interior Ministry, where the government has said that 25,000 fighters will be incorporated into a police force, only 500 have received jobs and training so far, said Faraj Senussi Arabi, a revolutionary fighter and commander of rebels who wants to work with the ministry. Some police are on the streets, he said, and fighters accompany them on patrols.

But many who fought in the battle for Tripoli five months ago are frustrated by the delays.

“These are impulsive kids,” said Osama Juwali, the defense minister. “They want everything to happen fast.”

Tens of thousands of questionnaires were recently distributed to fighters across the country, he said, asking them whether they wanted to join the police or army, or travel overseas for vocational training.

After the forms are returned this month, they will be assessed and jobs will be assigned, he said. In the meantime, he does not have plans to encourage people to give up weapons, which proliferated wildly during the fighting.

Heavy weaponry should eventually be handed over to the army, Juwali said, but he has no problem with rifles and small arms remaining in fighters’ hands. “When you have lots of weapons, everyone has one but doesn’t use it,” he said.

Calls for paid officers

To maintain security, the head of Tripoli’s local council, Abdul Rezzaq Abuhajar, coordinates with the Tripoli Military Council, the group headed by rebel leader Abdulhakim Belhadj that controls most of the brigades of Tripolitan fighters.

Abuhajar said civilian officials “want to see police on the streets, not revolutionaries.” He called on the Defense and Interior ministries to move faster to fulfill promises to create paid jobs in the police and army, adding that unpaid rebels sometimes turn to crime.

Muhammad al-Daeki, whose makeup and perfume emporium is nestled under the Italianate arches in Tripoli’s battered but elegant downtown, said commerce has almost returned to its prewar levels. “The store is open until 9 or 10 at night,” he said on a recent weekend as he enthusiastically sprayed scent on shoppers.

Although life in the city generally has improved since Gaddafi was ousted, he said, one problem remains.

“Some people are getting around with guns,” he said. “I don’t want revolutionaries in control of security. I want them all under the government.”

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