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Libyan hero Abdel-Hakim Belhaj retreats from Islamist past

| Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya -- Abdel-Hakim Belhaj is an emerging hero of the Libyan uprising, the man who led the Tripoli Brigade that swept into the capital and captured the fortified compound that was Moammar Gadhafi's seat of power. He's also the former leader of an Islamic militant group who says he was tortured by CIA agents at a secret prison.

Belhaj, 45, the rebels' commander in Tripoli, said on Friday that the United States wrongly lumped him in with terrorists after 9/11, but that he holds no grudge. He said he shares the West's goal of a free Libya.

"We call and hope for a civil country that is ruled by the law which we were not allowed to enjoy under Gadhafi," he told The Associated Press. "The identity of the country will be left up to the people to choose."

He was not always so inclusive. In a 1996 statement he wrote as leader of the now-dissolved Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Belhaj vowed to fight "all the deviant groups that call for democracy or fight for the sake of it."

Though Belhaj and many others who resisted Gadhafi for decades considered their fight an Islamic cause, both secular and religious Libyans took part in the uprising that led to Gadhafi's downfall. Secular Libyans and the West are hoping Belhaj's actions match what he told the Libyan people minutes after arriving at Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound Aug. 23.

"You are facing a historic moment; a responsibility in front of God and the world, to protect and preserve the security of your country. To have justice, equality and welfare," he told Al-Jazeera. "We have to unite and join the ranks to build the country."

Belhaj has the support of the leader of the rebels' National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. Trading his army fatigues for a business suit, Belhaj accompanied Abdul-Jalil on a trip to Qatar, where on Monday they urged NATO representatives and Western officials to extend NATO operations to protect civilians from the remnants of Gadhafi's regime that continue to fight.

The next day in the rebels' temporary capital of Benghazi, Abdul-Jalil pointed to that conference as evidence that Belhaj is someone the council can trust. "He doesn't pose a threat to the world's safety," he said.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was not a monolithic entity, explained one U.S. official familiar with the group. Some branches have had connections with al-Qaida in Sudan, Afghanistan or Pakistan, but others dropped any relationship with al-Qaida entirely.

But U.S. officials are "watching to see whether or not this is for real, or just for show," the official said.

Belhaj plays down his Islamist ties. "We never have and never will support what they call terrorism," he said.

Belhaj was a civil engineering student and Gadhafi opponent when he fled Libya and went to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. He later joined the U.S.-backed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, fighting alongside militants who would go on to form al-Qaida.

He said members of the terror group asked him to join, but he refused because he disagreed with its ideology of global jihad, or holy war, and wanted to focus on ridding Libya of Gadhafi.

Belhaj's 1996 statement revealed differences with al-Qaida on the issue of targeting civilians. Though he decried neighboring Algeria's regime as "infidel," he heavily criticized Islamic militants there for "massacres of civilians, women, children and elders."

Belhaj returned to Libya in the 1990s and led the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in fierce confrontations with Gadhafi's regime. He said that after fleeing Libya in the mid-1990s, he moved from country to country until 2004, when he was picked up and renditioned to Thailand, where he claims he was tortured by the CIA.

"It was a very bad treatment. The whole time I was blindfolded, I was hung from the wall, and they would beat me on my back, the way they tied me up was extremely painful and difficult to bear," he said.

CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood declined to comment on Belhaj's claims.

Belhaj said he believes his detention was in reaction to what he called the "tragic events of 9/11."

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