Libya's Army Tries to Reassert Itself as Militias Have Their Way

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Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters

Tanks on display during a military parade to commemorate the establishment of the Libyan national army in Benghazi on Dec. 8, 2011

The drenching rains and whipping winds off the Mediterranean Sea were not enough to keep Major Anwar al-Mishri in his Toyota pickup truck. "Our patrols go out no matter what," he said, his voice barely audible over the pelting drops. "Our job is to protect the people. And that is what we are here to do tonight."

Over the past few weeks, units of the Libyan national army such as Mishri's have stepped up their presence in the capital, Tripoli, urging regional militias to disband and join their forces. Many have scoffed at the offer, preferring instead to keep their heavy weapons. The new Libyan government is too weak to confront the brigades. It is concentrating efforts on more pressing matters, such as lobbying the international community to release its frozen assets. With the government lacking the will and motivation to confront the brigades, the creation of a national fighting force to replace the regional units scattered throughout the country is unlikely to be accomplished anytime soon.

But that doesn't deter the major. On the coastal road near the neighborhood of Suq al-Juma'a, Mishri and his 20 soldiers have set up a makeshift checkpoint. They spread out around a traffic circle, with the men standing between the road's lanes. The soldiers are looking for pickup trucks with heavy weapons, like missile launchers. The hundreds of brigades that sprang up during the country's eight-month revolution pilfered the army's depots, making off with thousands of antitank cannons and antiaircraft guns. Now that the revolution is over and former leader Muammar Gaddafi is dead, Libya's new government, known as the National Transitional Council (NTC), wants them to return the weapons to the barracks. "The militias need to hand the missiles over to the army, and that is why we are here," says Mishri.

In downtown Tripoli, Colonel Salim Azway is inspecting a military-police office on Medina Street. The regional office has been busy signing up recruits for the armed-forces branch. Thirty-five men enlisted at the Medina Street station over the past seven weeks. "Every day we get new people," says the colonel, sifting through a seven-page list of 128 people who joined the military police since July. But he admits that not everyone joins out of a sense of national duty. "Some sign up for nationalistic reasons, others because they need to work." With the economy decimated by the war, many have been enticed by the promise of a steady paycheck. Married men receive 500 Libyan dinars per month ($322), and single men receive 300 dinars ($194).

The military police verify that everyone carrying a weapon has a permit from the national army. Like Mishri's men, they set up random checkpoints throughout the capital. They also search for high-ranking Gaddafi loyalists who served in the brigades that led the assault against the rebels during the revolution.

At Tripoli's airport, a group of militia fighters are gathered around a pickup weighed down by an antiaircraft gun. "Why do we need to turn in our weapons and register our guns?" Radi Jalban asks. "We liberated the country, and it is our right to carry weapons." Jalban and his fellow fighters come from Zintan, a city whose warriors played a key role in liberating western Libya. Zintani brigades subsequently encircled Tripoli and led the final assault against the loyalists. They later captured Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, who remains incarcerated in their hometown. They are the last remaining regional brigade in Tripoli controlling the airport and a few other pockets around the capital.

The NTC and its national army have not been able to persuade militias from Zintan and other cities to join the new armed forces, nor have they been able to rein them in. More interested in guarding their independence than in fostering national unity, the brigades from what are virtually city-states have rebuffed the NTC's entreaties to disband. They have also refused to allow the NTC access to prisoners, leaving the council in the dark about which senior Gaddafi officials they hold. At a recent press conference, NTC vice chairman Abd al-Hafiz Ghoga confessed that the government does not know where Gaddafi's former intelligence chief, Abdallah Sanussi, is being held. The Zintani fighters holding Saif al-Islam Gaddafi have refused to surrender him to the national authorities.

Militias have been accused of violence and crime in Tripoli. The mention of Zintani brigades in the capital conjures a bitter response. "They steal cars and beat up people," carps Ahmad Fatni at a Tripoli coffee stand.

"We don't want Zintani brigades to control our roads. The police should control them," says General Khalifa Hiftar. "Zintani brigades are spread out in people's houses and farms. Why do they still control the airport?" Hiftar has reason to be frustrated with Zintani militias. Two weeks ago, they sprayed his convoy with bullets when it did not stop at a Zintani-manned checkpoint on the road to the airport. Days later they shot his son four times outside a bank and later incarcerated him before turning him over to the hospital. Says the general, "All armed groups should go home or join the army."

But the NTC is in no hurry to use force to get them to do so. Instead the government has focused on financial incentives. Council chairman Mustafa Abd al-Jalil has been floating a plan to persuade the militias to choose among joining the army, joining the police or returning to civilian life. At a rally on Dec. 29, he explained that he envisioned sending rebels to receive vocational training abroad. But with the NTC strapped for cash, such a plan is unlikely to be implemented. "We need money. Without it, we cannot build a national army and institutions," Ghoga told TIME. "Our chief priority is getting the world to unfreeze our $160 billion it holds."

If its plan to entice the militias with financial incentives proves untenable, the NTC may have to coerce the brigades to disband. But with the country trying to turn the page after eight months of bloodshed, it is a step the council is reluctant to take.