“Creating a new army is not going to be by an official statement or resolution. It has to come after a negotiation,” said Anis Sharif, a spokesman for Abdulhakim Belhadj, an Islamist seen as the dominant militia leader in Tripoli.
Reining in the militias is crucial to restoring order after the fighting between NATO-backed revolutionaries and loyalists of longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi, diplomats say. NATO officially ended its operations in Libya on Monday night, giving the country full responsibility for its own security.
Although many of the fighters have been in a celebratory mood since the war ended, several confrontations between rival militias have threatened to escalate into bloodshed — including one at Tripoli’s airport Monday.
“The danger is that you have young men returning from battle, bored and with a newfound sense of regional identity and personal pride,” said a Western official in Tripoli, who was not authorized to comment on the record.
Militia and military leaders recognize the need to demobilize or integrate fighters into the security services, the official said. “But the key will be agreeing and implementing a plan to do this.”
‘A political vacuum’
Efforts to relaunch the army have been hobbled by the central government’s weakness and rivalries among revolutionaries.
Sharif said that one of the main goals of the Transitional National Council was to avoid a political vacuum.
“On this point, they failed — and failed completely,” he said, recalling that many of the council’s members remained in the eastern city of Benghazi, the bastion of the revolution, after Gaddafi’s forces were driven from Tripoli in August. “They left the capital with a political vacuum,” he said, and militias from other areas have moved in and set up camp.
Islamist fighters have squabbled with revolutionaries who once belonged to the national army over who should lead Libya’s new armed forces, so the top post is vacant, officials said. The military’s No. 2 officer — Deputy Chief of Staff Suleiman Mahmoud al-Obeidi — was stunned last month when a militia from the western Zintan region seized control of his Tripoli base while he was out of town, his aides said.
In response, Obeidi summoned about 700 heavily armed revolutionaries and threatened to wrest back control of the base, an old army supply headquarters in western Tripoli, said his son and legal adviser, Haytham al-Obeidi.
“It could have been a real confrontation. We were very, very angry,” the younger Obeidi said. The crisis was defused only when President Mustafa Abdel Jalil intervened, he said.