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Libyan security forces pose problem for U.S.

| Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, 6:08 p.m.

TRIPOLI — After committing $8 million to help build a counterterrorism force in Libya, the United States faces a difficult choice: work through a weak government that has so far proved unable to build a national army and police force from the thousands of former rebels who have operated as militias since Moammar Gadhafi's downfall — or work with the militias.

The deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi underscored what many say is a growing extremist problem amid Libya's lawlessness.

Most Libyan lawmakers are welcoming an Obama administration decision — made shortly before the Benghazi attack — to help Libya establish a special counterterrorism force.

But unlike Pakistan and Yemen, where Special Forces have helped train elite counterterrorism units, Libya presents no obvious security partner.

The Libyan government remains largely ineffective, with its military and police force still in the embryonic stage of development. Many militia members are armed, disciplined and ready to work. But Libyan officials and analysts say their participation in such a force could undermine the goal of establishing a strong and unified post-war Libya.

Last week, an Embassy delegation, led by CIA operatives, traveled to Benghazi to meet and recruit fighters from the Libyan Shield, a powerful umbrella organization of militias, according to Fathi al-Obeidi, a commander of the group.

The Libyan Shield provided the rescue force that assisted the U.S. mission in Benghazi on the night of the attack, and Obeidi said his fighters represent the most viable local option for a special unit.

The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli could not be reached for comment, and Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman, said that officials were in the preliminary stages of the program and had not yet determined the size or composition of the force.

It was unclear whether the visit described by Obeidi was part of the $8 million Defense Department initiative or a separate project.

Analysts said the task of choosing a viable security partner from among disparate and competing factions in Libya's security vacuum is loaded with potential pitfalls.

“There are enormous risks,” said Geoff Porter, a risk and security analyst who specializes in North Africa.

One danger of working with quasi-state actors such as Libya's militias is that it's difficult to hold their members accountable if they commit violent crimes or engage in human rights abuses, Porter said.

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