Beached in Benghazi and bound for Baghdad, militant Islamist militias are making a last stand in both Libya and Iraq.
All eyes are on Iraq this week, with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) overrunning Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and rapidly advancing on the Iraqi capital Baghdad. Yet, the security situation is no less volatile in Libya. Nevertheless, the political and military dynamics are different in Libya and Iraq, even though both are drenched in blood and plunged into a bloodstained sea of political uncertainty and civil war.
Libya has no division of the ISIL, but it has rival and warring militias galore. Similarly, Libya is not ravaged by sectarian strife as Iraq is, as virtually all Libyans are Sunni Muslims. Iraq is not only confounded by confessional conflict between the majority Shia Muslims and the minority Sunni Muslims, it is also confronted with ethnic tensions between Arabs, Kurds and Turkomans.
Be that as it may, there are common elements in the two war-torn countries. The troubles erupted in the North African country and the Middle Eastern one, both oil-rich countries, when the United States and NATO intervened directly to topple regimes Washington deemed inimical to American national interests. The result was that all hell broke loose in both Libya and Iraq.
Out of the blue retired General Khalifa Haftar boldly began heaving himself onto the hook at the heart of the Libyan political quagmire and launched “Operation Dignity” against militant Islamist militias in Cyrenaica from his base in Benghazi. Haftar is considered an outlaw by Libyan authorities, but he enjoys nationwide support, both in eastern and western Libya.
Moreover, unlike Iraq, Libya has no powerful premier of the calibre and political acumen of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. The General National Congress (GNC) or Libyan interim proto-parliament is in disarray. Iraq’s parliament is in tatters, too. But Al-Maliki’s Machiavellian machinations have ensured some measure of political cohesion as he shrewdly plays one party against the other, courting the Kurds and feigning to be the champion of personal freedoms and civil rights. All the while, posing as the uncrowned commandant of the Shia Muslims of Iraq, the majority that was long politically sidelined under Saddam Hussein, or so the quintessential Iraqi myth claims.
Al-Maliki’s resilience stems from his extraordinary susceptibility to adaptation, a character trait that does not appear to be among Haftar’s repertoire. Surprisingly, Libya’s Supreme Court decision pronounced the election unconstitutional as Libyan Prime Minister billionaire business tycoon from the western Libyan port city of Misrata, Ahmed Miitig.
The decision is unprecedented as the Libyan Supreme Court was never asked to arbitrate in such political matters. Miitig was catapulted to prime minister by the Islamists in the GNC; his political demise had little to do with Haftar. Haftar sees himself more as a potential Libyan replica of Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, rather than the scheming Al-Maliki. He pointedly declared to the Saudi Arabian Pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that his primary foe was the “Muslim Brotherhood”.
Yet Haftar has also waged war on other Libyan militant Islamist militias such as the Ansar Al-Sharia. The caretaker prime minister Abdullah Al-Thinni officially resigned several weeks ago after he and his family were menaced by militias. Al-Thinni’s ordeal has produced stronger responses than usual in Libya, especially after he flew to Benghazi and openly aligned himself politically with Haftar.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) proposed a meeting aimed at resolving the Libyan crisis scheduled tentatively for 18-19 June, and most analysts suspect that in the current berserk climate it will work wonders.
Haftar is headquartered in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and capital of eastern coastal Libyan region Cyrenaica, the cradle of the Libyan Revolution of 17 February 2011. But, Benghazi is home to some of the most belligerent militant Islamist militias. Last Wednesday, a lorry loaded with explosives decimated a police station in the city.
The suicide bomber who detonated the explosives was killed instantly in the attack, while at least five police officers were injured. It is not known precisely who was behind the heinous crime. The Nafusa Mountains, a stronghold of Libya’s indigenous Amazigh, is also home to a number of Arab tribes, many of them militant Islamist in ideological orientation. Al-Zintan is the main city in the region and it is of significant symbolic value. The secularist oriented National Forces Alliance (NFA), an alliance of 58 political parties, presided over by former wartime Libyan prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, a liberal secularist and a former protege of Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi who is in favour of privatisation.
The NFA is a natural ally of Haftar in his crusade against the militant Islamists. It is unclear how the political power play will unfold in Libya in the days to come. Much depends on the alliances that will forge a new political dispensation. Islamist militias in Al-Zintan have held Seif Al-Islam hostage, detained in an unidentified location since 19 November 2011. An arrest warrant was issued against him by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for charges of crimes against humanity. However, the Al-Zintan militias detaining Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi have refused to hand him over either to the Libyan authorities, or to the ICC.