Ex-Libyan general battling Islamist militias faces dwindling support amid stalemate


In this March 18, 2011, file photo, Khalifa Hifter leaves a news conference in the courthouse in the center of Benghazi, eastern Libya. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

Just weeks after he launched a popular revolt against the Islamist militants plaguing Libya’s east, rogue general Khalifa Hifter already is losing support for his war.

Many Libyans applauded Hifter’s push to drive extremists out of the eastern city of Benghazi when he first announced the military operation in May. After suffering years of armed attacks with little response from the government, Libyans saw in Hifter a bold figure willing to hit back at the gunmen stalking their streets.

But the former general’s offensive has since given way to a deadly stalemate, in which at least 200 people have been killed, according to the government, but neither side can claim victory. Hifter’s calls to rid the country of Islamists are also raising concerns that he harbors bigger political ambitions, making some here increasingly wary of the campaign.

“Hifter inserted himself into a scenario where he is the cavalier on a white horse who came to save the day,” Mohamed Abdullah, a member of Libya’s General National Congress (GNC), said of Hifter’s dramatic reentry into Libyan politics this year. Hifter, 71, had defected from the regime of former strongman Moammar Gaddafi in 1987 after serving as an officer in the army and later returned to Libya to fight in the 2011 revolt.

But he has been unable to seize the advantage in his current offensive, according to Abdullah, despite attracting support and weapons from portions of Libya’s official security ­forces.

“Hifter’s military power is actually quite limited,” Abdullah said. “He hasn’t been able to control the situation.”

In addition to the scores of deaths, the fighting over the past couple of months has forced the evacuation of several civilian neighborhoods in Benghazi, government officials say. And the militants are striking back, inflicting heavy losses on Hifter’s men and carrying out targeted killings of local officials unabated.

Since Gaddafi’s ouster, Libya has grappled with the rise of a mosaic of well-armed militias vying for influence in government and in the cities. Many Libyans fault the Islamist-dominated GNC, saying it has not only ignored the militiamen alternately guarding and preying on the population but has also benefited from their firepower in a country where the formal army and police exist only in name.

In Benghazi, the authority exercised by local militias — many of them Islamist — has been particularly problematic, eventually enabling the formation of the jihadist Ansar al-Sharia group that many residents blame for most of the violence.

Hifter initially vowed to go after Ansar al-Sharia, whose members are suspected of participating in the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission and a nearby CIA annex in Benghazi. But seizing on widespread anti-Islamist sentiment, he soon directed his fire at other Islamist brigades in Benghazi, as well — and then presided over the storming of the GNC building in the capital, Tripoli.

The broadening of his mission virtually guaranteed a military standoff between the militias and Hifter’s men in Benghazi. Then, fed up with the fighting and damage to farms and livestock, one Benghazi-area tribe demanded that Hifter’s troops leave the area or it would join the fight against him, officials and residents there said.

“Security everywhere is chaotic now. Hifter should have finished this operation quickly,” said Kamal Kemo, a Tripoli resident.

Hifter’s maneuvers also exposed what some observers say are the renegade general’s latent political aspirations.

First he called for an emergency government to replace the GNC and guide the country toward new elections. Since then, however, his blanket indictments of Libya’s non­militant Islamists, as well as the jihadists, suggest he is styling himself on Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, a former general who has led a bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt over the past year.

“When he first came out, he said, ‘I’m fighting terrorism,’ and we were behind that,” said Rana, a 33-year-old Benghazi resident who gave only her first name for fear of reprisal. But when Hifter took aim at political Islamists and the GNC, “he was clearly getting into politics,” she said. “And I don’t agree with that.”

At a recent news conference in Benghazi, Hifter called the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a grass-roots Islamist group, an “epidemic” that “the Libyan soil will not absorb.”

His rhetoric has spooked Islamists who are not aligned with Ansar al-Sharia but who now feel targeted.

“Both sides — Ansar al-Sharia and Hifter — are illegal bodies working outside the state,” a former member of Rafallah Sahati, a Salafist brigade in Benghazi, said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is still in contact with armed groups in the city. “So it’s a dilemma for everybody, and we don’t like either of them. We are worried about where this violence will take us.”

Abdullah, who worked with Hifter before the 2011 revolt as part of the U.S.-based opposition to Gaddafi, says he believes the commander is aiming for a senior position in any new government. Elections to choose a new parliament were held June 25.

“He is as power hungry as it gets,” Abdullah said. “A lot of political movements wanted to piggyback on his popularity. But people are starting to take a step back.”

“He won’t stop until he’s the Sissi of Libya,” he said.

Nizar Sarieldin contributed to this report.

Erin Cunningham is an Egypt-based correspondent for The Post. She previously covered conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor, GlobalPost and The National.
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