The Washington Post

The war over Benghazi is actually happening in Benghazi

Renegade former general Khalifa Hifter, pictured above in March 2011 in Benghazi. (Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press)

If you just listened to the political conversation in the United States, you'd be hard-pressed to know where or what Benghazi is. In the U.S., Benghazi is not a picturesque port on the Mediterranean with a rich, fascinating history. It's not, more importantly, Libya's second city and a site of deadly political battles. Instead, it's an arena attached to Washington where the Beltway's pugilists strut and fume. My colleagues over at the Fix made that point yesterday, at least implicitly, when they declared that "Bowe Bergdahl is the new Benghazi."

But the war over Benghazi remains hottest in Benghazi itself.

That was made clear today with reports that a suicide bomber had targeted the Benghazi residence of the renegade former general Khalifa Hifter. He was unscathed, but at least four others died, according to the BBC. Hifter, who was a top commander during the dictatorship of Moammar Gaddafi before defecting and living in shadowy circumstances in the U.S., has in the past month launched an offensive against Islamist factions throughout the country.

The worst of the battles have taken place in Benghazi, the crucible of the 2011 uprising that eventually toppled Gaddafi's regime. On Monday, clashes between forces loyal to Hifter and Islamist brigades led to 20 deaths.

Hifter's campaign, backed by various regional militias as well as some army and air force units, illustrates the crippling instability that defines post-Gaddafi Libya. In an interview with The Washington Post late last month, Hifter rejected the authority of the Islamist-led elected assembly in Tripoli, deeming the interim government "ineffective" and compromised.

Since Gaddafi's downfall, Islamist militias have gained traction in Libya, aided by the country's political vacuum and easy access to Gaddafi's considerable arms caches. Some have gained political influence in Tripoli. In Benghazi, Hifter is targeting a number of powerful factions, including Ansar al-Sharia, the extremist group linked to attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in 2012. Hifter has been able to even order aerial bombardments of Islamist positions in the city in recent weeks.

There are increasing fears of a full-blown civil war, not helped by the continuing mystery about both Hifter's past and his plans for the future.

When speaking to The Post, Hifter denied any intent to assume a permanent leadership position in the country and rejected accusations by opponents that he is a cipher for foreign interests. Instead, he frames his campaign, dubbed "Operation Dignity," as a kind of nationalist crusade. Here's what he told The Post last month:

We are protecting Libya and our people, but we are protecting them from an enemy who is everyone’s enemy, the enemy of all free countries, a terrorist enemy with every meaning of the word terrorist in it. And they are from all different countries, Mali, Niger, Afghanistan, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, India, Britain, even Americans, putting themselves on the death path. There are many from eastern countries and they came together because they are all killers.

After the suicide bombing on his compound, Hifter issued a new warning. "The retaliation will take place in several cities, and focus on Benghazi," he told SkyNews Arabia. "They will pay a dear price."

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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