View Point: Libya on the brink of civil war
By Patrick Cockburn Correspondent
LIBYA is tipping towards all-out civil war as rival militias take sides for and against an attempted coup led by a renegade general that has pushed the central government towards disintegration.
In a move likely to deepen the crisis, the army chief of staff, whose regular
forces are weak and ill-armed, called on Islamist-led militias to help preserve
His call came after forces commanded by General Khalifa Hifter stormed the
parliament building in Tripoli at the weekend, after earlier attacking Islamist
militia camps in Benghazi.
The fighting has been the heaviest since the overthrow of Colonel Muammar
Gaddafi in 2011 and there are signs that opposing militias and elements of the
security forces in different parts of the country and with differing ideologies may
be readying to fight a civil war.
A Libyan air force base in Tobruk in the east of the country on Monday
declared allegiance to Gen Hifter while Benghazi Airport has been closed after
being hit with rockets. Some 43 people were killed and 100 wounded in fighting
in Benghazi at the end of last week.
The attack on the parliament building in the capital on Sunday was made by
militiamen armed with truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, mortars and rocketpropelled
grenade launchers. The parliament leader Nouri Abu Sahmein - in
sympathy with the Islamists - called on an alliance of Islamist militias known as
the Libyan Central shield to stop Gen Hifter's forces.
Al-Qaeda type movements such as the Lions of Monotheism have pledged to
resist Gen Hifter, a spokesman saying on its website that "you have entered a
battle you will lose".
The most powerful competing paramilitary movements are based in Misurata
on the coast east of Tripoli and Zintan in the mountains to the west. Zintan
appears to be backing Gen Hifter, whose own support inside and outside the
country is shadowy, with the powerful Qaqaa and Sawaiq brigades.
The latest step in the dissolution of the Libyan state underlines the degree to
which the opposition has proved unable to fill the vacuum left by the fall of
Gaddafi. The war which led to his defeat in 2011 was largely fought by NATO air
Paradoxically, both the militiamen attacking and defending the government
are paid out of the central budget. In addition, Gaddafi had 100 000 men under
arms who still receive a monthly salary as if they were part of the regular forces,
but few turn up to work.
Al-Qaeda type militias such as Ansar al-Sharia are strongest in Benghazi
where they are held responsible for much of the mayhem. In Tripoli, Islamist
militia leaders and their staffs have taken over whole floors of the best hotels
such as the Radisson Blu.
On news of fresh fighting in Libya, the international price of oil rose to US$110
a barrel for Brent crude. The Libyan oilfields had just been reopened after a
prolonged closure of oil export terminals in the east of the country but are now
shut again. Libyan oil output has fallen to 200 000 barrels a day, compared to 1,4
million barrels a day produced last year.
Many people in Tripoli express sympathy with General Hifter's denunciations
of the Islamic militias as the popular mood becomes increasingly desperate
over the collapse of civil order and the central state.
Gen Hifter said "this is not a coup against the state, we are not seeking power.
Terrorism and its servants want it to be a battle". The general, who in the 1980s
fought for Gaddafi in Mali but defected to the US, where he lived for many
years, returned to Libya in 2011 but played only a limited role in the revolt.
His hostility to the militias will go down well with many Libyans, but his forces
are in practice just one more militia faction and dependent on his alliance with
Nevertheless, Libyans express growing support for anybody who can restore
order and public safety by whatever means necessary.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival,
and the Struggle for Iraq. This article is reproduced from CounterPunch