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8 questions you want answered about the crisis in Libya

Security forces on vehicles with heavy artillery stand guard on the  road leading to the parliament building in Tripoli, Libya, after troops of Gen. Khalifa Haftar targeted Islamist lawmakers and officials at the parliament on Sunday, May 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Libyan national army)

As my colleague Abigail Hauslohner reports, Libya is currently in the grip of perhaps its worst crisis yet since the bloody 2011 civil war, when rebels, backed by NATO airstrikes, eventually captured and killed long-entrenched dictator Moammar Gaddafi and toppled his regime. The current standoff is shrouded in confusion, with many Libyans themselves unsure of the state of play on the ground. Here's what you need to know.

What's happening?
On Monday night, Libya braced for further clashes between rival, powerful militias after a mysterious, maverick military commander, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, launched strikes on Islamist groups in Libya's main eastern city of Benghazi last week, which led to 7o reported deaths, as well as an offensive on the country's parliament in Tripoli this weekend. Haftar and his supporters, flying the banner of their self-proclaimed "Libyan National Army," say they want to purge Libya of "terrorism" -- taking aim at a number of Islamist factions who have risen to the fore in Gaddafi's wake.

But, excuse me, why did they attack parliament?
Gunmen loyal to Haftar stormed parliament on Sunday; the assembly was soon declared "dissolved." (Parliament intends to convene on Tuesday.) It is assumed Haftar and his allies considered some of the country's politicians in Tripoli to be too close to Islamist elements. The post-Gaddafi Libyan government remains a fledgling, fragile institution, prone to collapse and dependent on a hodgepodge of regional militias to keep the peace. Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani branded Haftar's cadres as "outlaws" and claims Haftar is attempting to launch a coup -- something Haftar denies. The Libyan army chief called upon other brigades in Tripoli and elsewhere to rally to the government's cause.

Why are there all these militias?
According to a recent RAND Corp. report, Libya's militias number in the "low hundreds" -- and that's a conservative estimate. The rebels who fought the Gaddafi regime were never a united, cohesive force. They were at best a loose alliance of various, motley factions: tribal bands, army and regime defectors, armed groups that emerged during certain intense uprisings -- such as those in the port city of Misrata and the towns of the Nafusa Mountains, for example -- which then became power brokers with guns in the chaotic aftermath that followed Gaddafi's overthrow. Meanwhile, in the security vacuum, Islamist groups once repressed or marginalized gained traction, launching a string of attacks and assassinations on government officials and other factional rivals in major centers such as Tripoli and Benghazi.


Next question.

Well, the U.S. did get involved in all this, right?
The Obama administration famously "led from behind" in 2011, letting Europeans take the public lead in quashing the Gaddafi regime with a campaign of NATO airstrikes largely coordinated and supplied by the U.S. military. After Gaddafi's death, President Obama delivered an address from the Rose Garden hailing "the end of a long and painful chapter for the people of Libya who now have the opportunity to determine their own destiny in a new and democratic Libya." While elections have taken place, political infighting dogs Libya's path to democracy -- not to mention the routine, endless rounds of skirmishes between rival militias. The RAND report argues that NATO countries, especially the United States, "could have done more" to safeguard the transition, but, in their desire to avoid another imbroglio like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, refused to deploy an international peacekeeping force that could have played a more active role in controlling Libya's many armed groups.

Who is Haftar?
A former general in the Gaddafi regime who split with the dictator, he lived in the United States for a spell in the 1980s. Hauslohner unpacks the little that is certain about his career since then:

In 1988, he broke with Gaddafi and established the Libyan National Army, described as a rebel group based in Chad. Haftar claimed publicly that he had U.S. backing.

In a 2011 interview with CNN, Libya’s former ambassador in Washington, Ali Aujali, who supported the anti-Gaddafi uprising that year, declined to confirm whether the CIA had bankrolled the Libyan rebel group established years earlier by Haftar. But he said, “The Americans know him very, very well.”

He added: “I think working for the CIA for the sake of your national interest is nothing to be ashamed of.”

When The Post asked in 2011 about Haftar’s possible connections to the CIA, a senior intelligence official said the agency policy was not to discuss such issues.

Haftar had struggled unsuccessfully to gain control over Libya’s disparate rebel forces during the early months of the 2011 uprising. After Gaddafi’s ouster, he had gradually faded from the Libyan political scene, until recently.

Haftar is winning the support of an array of factions and units in the country's west and east. His strikes on opponents in Benghazi last week were carried out by sorties scrambled from an air base in Tubruk. In the west, he has the firm support of brigades from the town of Zintan.

So is this a battle between American-backed secularists and Islamists?
No. There's no clear evidence pointing to a foreign hand in the recent events. And while Haftar's forces may style themselves as anti-Islamist, they are not up against a uniformly fundamentalist bloc. The Misrata militias, which are reportedly en route to confront Haftar's fighters -- and have long warred with the Zintanis -- are no more Salafist than the fighters they may soon battle. Ultimately, as The Post reports here and here, the clashes are about turf, land and power.

What are some of the effects of the current crisis?
Embassies have been closed and foreign workers, including some at foreign oil companies, have been recalled. On Monday, global crude oil prices rose as a result of the violence in Libya, home to considerable energy reserves that had just started to flow after months of bickering and militia-imposed blockades. Algeria also reportedly shut down its land border with Libya. The war in 2011 spawned a well-documented trail of tumult across the Muslim world: radical Libyan fighters have popped up in Syria; Libyan weapons from the looted arsenals of the Gaddafi regime spurred insurgencies and militancy across the Sahel. Libya's neighbors can only dread further instability.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.



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