Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s assaults on the Libyan parliament in Tripoli Sunday and Islamist strongholds in Benghazi last week, at the head of a group of former Libyan soldiers and assorted militias, has won a certain amount of backing from the US and United Arab Emirates, in the hope that his campaign will finally bring stable rule to the chaos-ridden country.
Three prime ministers have come and gone since Qaddafi’s one-man rule was toppled in 2011. Hafter has made his objective clear, blaming the havoc on extremist Islamists “who have held the country to ransom.” debkafile’s military and intelligence sources report that, while unidentified American entities are supplying the Hafter force with funds and intelligence, sources in Abu Dhabi are providing them with weapons, or the price of their purchase on Libya’s flourishing arms market. These two outsiders seemingly collaborate.
How far the Obama administration and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Zayed Al Nahyan actually support Hafter’s cause is hard to pin down. It will most likely depend on how successful he is in his bid to start carving out the shape of stable government rid of Islamist extremists in the northern Libyan region between the two key towns of Tripoli and Benghazi.
The most dangerous Islamist militia in his sights is Ansar al-Sharia and its leader Abu Khattala, whom US intelligence recently concluded carried out the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012 and murdered Ambassador Christ Stevens and three of his CIA staffers.
(Exclusive details of the Obama administration’s plan to capture Abu Khattala alive or dead were first revealed in the last DEBKA Weekly 635 on May 16.)
Khalifa Hafter’s campaign to remove the Islamist militias which hold Libya in their grip may or may not be directly linked to the US plan against Ansar al-Sharia and its leader. But it will in any case be useful, in as far as it evicts this and other extremist brigades from their strongholds at the heart of ruling institutions in Libya’s main cities.
In their attack Friday, Hafter loyalist forces, firing Grad surface rockets, truck-mounted antiaircraft guns and mortars, inflicted heavy casualties on the Islamist forces controlling Benghazi.
Sunday, with the fighting still raging in Benghazi, another Hafter force struck 650 km to the east, to overrun parliament in Tripoli, which he accused of being strangled by extremist Islamist entities
In Tripoli, Hafter’s forces gained important support from the large Al-Saiqa force, made up of former commandos and paratroops of the Libyan army, and the al-Qaaqaa Brigade, formed by Western Libyan soldiers who defected from the army.
They put the lawmakers to flight and replaced them with a 60-member constituent's assembly.
Whatever he calls it, Hafter is therefore leading a military revolt in Libya. His spokesman Sunday denied that the operation was a coup and insisted the force was “fighting by the people’s choice.”
Ministers and high officials of Libya’s government, which stopped functioning altogether after the last prime minister fled last year, refused Monday to recognize the new ruling body and called on Islamist militias in Tripoli to go to war on their new would-be masters.
debkafile’s military and intelligence sources are reserving judgment on the chances of Gen. Hafter and his allies succeeding in their campaign, or how long they can count on US and Gulf support. The situation will remain uncertain so long as Libya’s most powerful militias sit on the fence until they decide which side it is worth their while to join.
Libya’s political landscape is dominated by 17 large, well-armed militias, most of them tribal or regional units that broke away from the army after Qaddafi’s ouster. But there is also a swarm of small armed groups, which control fiefdoms in urban districts and small hamlets. Their loyalties are hazy.
The strongest armed group of them all is the Misrata Brigade, which rules the port of that name in northern Libya west of Tripoli. This brigade is a coalition of 200 small militias; it commands 40,000 fighters, 800 tanks, a self-propelled artillery unit and 2,000 armored vehicles.
Misrata has not so far intervened in the fighting in Benghazi and Tripoli.