2 years after Gadhafi, Libya remains in anarchy

| Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013, 7:48 p.m.

TRIPOLI — Libya marks two years since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi on Wednesday, but instead of the freedom and development Libyans had hoped for, the country has fallen deeper into anarchy. Rival Islamist and Western-backed factions are melding with the country's dizzying array of militias, turning political feuds into armed conflict.

Militias that include Islamic extremists are lining up with Islamist politicians in parliament, who have been trying to remove Western-backed Prime Minister Ali Zidan and bring stricter Islamic rule. Other armed groups support Zidan's non-Islamist allies. The result is a fractured system in which political rivalries have the potential to erupt into civil war.

In recent months, the militia chaos has escalated.

Zidan was briefly kidnapped by militiamen this month. During the summer, eastern militias seized control of oil exporting terminals, sending production plunging from 1.4 million barrels a day to about 600,000, robbing the country of its main revenue source. Other militias in the south cut off water supplies to the capital for days.

Zidan's office manager, the defense minister's son and several judges have been kidnapped. Activists and clerics who speak out against militias have been gunned down, as have at least 100 security or military officers.

At the same time, al-Qaida-inspired militias are spreading. The group Ansar al-Shariah, which is believed to be behind last year's attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other Americans, is increasing its strength not only in Benghazi, but in cities farther west such as Sirte and Ajdabiya.

“We are not a state by the normal definition of the word,” Zidan acknowledged to reporters in Tripoli on Sunday. “The government is rowing against the current, and this is very hard.”

Since Gadhafi's fall, hundreds of militias have run rampant. They originated in the rebel bands that fought against the longtime dictator in the 8-month war that toppled him.

Too weak to disarm the militias, the military, police and government have tried to co-opt them, paying them to play security roles such as guarding districts, facilities, even polling stations during elections. But the policy has backfired, empowering the militias without controlling them.

“This is a disaster,” said Husni Bey, a prominent businessman. Investors are fleeing the country, he said, blaming the government for “stuffing the mouths of militias.”

The tight interweaving of militias and politics has escalated since Libya held its first post-Gadhafi elections just over a year ago. A non-Islamist bloc won a plurality in parliament, a defeat for hard-liners who have ridden elections to power in other Arab countries since the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.

Since the election, the democratic transition has gone nowhere. Efforts by parliament to develop a body to draw up a new constitution have foundered. The non-Islamist bloc in parliament has fragmented, and Islamist lawmakers have grown more aggressive in trying to unseat Zidan — even as both sides collect militia allies.

“In Libya now, there is an armed wing for each politician,” said Abdel-Hakim al-Balazi, spokesman for the Anti-Crime Department, a militia umbrella group that includes Islamic radicals. Al-Balazi himself has been accused by Zidan of involvement in his abduction and was placed at one point under house arrest.

Nothing illustrates the mingling of militias and politics better than Zidan's Oct. 10 abduction after a U.S. special forces raid that snatched an al-Qaida suspect from Tripoli, enflaming divisions between Islamists and Zidan, who was accused of allowing the operation.

Dozens of gunmen swarmed into the Tripoli hotel where Zidan lives and dragged him off to a detention facility for seven hours until he was rescued by other militias. Zidan has depicted the abduction as the work of his Islamist opponents in parliament, accusing two ultraconservative lawmakers of plotting it.

The two denied any role.

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