Libyan rebel leader with U.S. ties feels abandoned

McClatchy NewspapersApril 12, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — Khalifa Hifter thought he'd be America's man in Libya.

He'd spent the last 24 years living under what he calls U.S. government protection in suburban northern Virginia. Before he returned to Libya last month, State Department and CIA officials sought him out for meetings. He delivered to them wish lists of weapons and vehicles to bolster the fight against Moammar Gadhafi.

To his frustration, however, U.S. officials haven't contacted him since. They've ignored his pleas for direct military support while the rebels steadily lose ground to Gadhafi's better-equipped forces.

"The United States is a second home to me," Hifter said. "They should be cooperating with me to help the Libyan people."

There's also a dispute about his role with the rebel army, a controversy that may help explain why the rebels appear nearly as disorganized now as they were when their revolt began two months ago.

In one of his first interviews since he returned to Libya, Hifter said that he'd been appointed the rebels' field commander this week. The hourlong interview he gave to two reporters Monday was arranged by the official rebel military spokesman and conducted in an office in the rebels' military headquarters. An organizational chart Hifter displayed showed him as equal to Gen. Abdelfatah Younis, a former Gadhafi interior minister who also lays claim to rebel command.

But his authority remains unclear. Fathi Baja, a member of the Transitional National Council, the rebel governing body, confirmed Tuesday that Hifter had been named field commander, but said that he reported to Younis. A council spokesman, Mustafa Gheriani, denied Hifter's claims to leadership and referred to him as a civilian. At a news conference last week, Younis denied that Hifter had a leadership role.

The controversy — along with his two-decade exile in the United States — makes Hifter one of the most intriguing figures in revolutionary Libya.

Gray-haired and ultra-confident, the 67-year-old Hifter, who was a top Libyan military commander when he broke with Gadhafi in 1987, denied working for the CIA, but said that as an opponent of one of the world's most secretive regimes, he was close enough to U.S. officials in Washington that "when I needed something, they would help me."

The CIA declined to comment about whether it had any relationship with Hifter.

Speaking almost exclusively in Arabic, Hifter said that with more advanced weapons the rebels would be "capable of ending the battle." He pledged to shape up the slapdash force composed largely of middle-aged soldiers and untrained volunteers who tend to flee from gunfire. He vowed that "real operations" against Gadhafi would start next week.

As for Younis, a military school classmate, Hifter was dismissive. "He has no effect on what I do in the field, so I don't pay much attention to him," he said.

He laughed when he was asked about the rebel's lack of discipline, which sends them flying in retreat at the mere sound of explosions.

"The last period was not my responsibility," Hifter said. "I was selected to be the field commander this week. There's a lot of things that are going to change."

There's no doubt that the rebels need something.

Eight days after the United States ceded command of the air campaign over Libya to NATO, Gadhafi's forces have pushed the rebels back to Ajdabiya, a sand-swept town just 100 miles from the opposition capital of Benghazi. On Tuesday, Britain and France urged NATO to step up its air support for the rebels. NATO replied that its campaign is consistent with what the United Nations Security Council authorized.

While the Obama administration wants Gadhafi to leave power, it's said that it won't furnish the rebels with weapons, partly out of reluctance to become more deeply involved in another Arab conflict, partly because U.S. officials say they're still trying to determine the makeup of the rebel movement.

Chris Stevens, a former official at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli who's now the Obama administration's special envoy to the opposition, arrived in Benghazi last week but has yet to meet with Hifter, both Hifter and others say.

When Hifter returned to Benghazi in mid-March, a month into the uprising, throngs of young supporters greeted him as a hero outside the seaside courthouse that's become a hub of the rebellion.

Hifter said that U.S. government officials first contacted him in 1987, when he defected from Gadhafi's army after leading a disastrous war in neighboring Chad.

Many Libyans think that Gadhafi abandoned Hifter in that conflict, sending him into a forbidding desert with inexperienced fighters and ill-suited weapons. The young colonel — he was in his 30s at the time — gained a reputation for is valor and violence, sometimes training rockets and other heavy weapons on his Chadian adversaries.

"It wasn't Hifter's fault, but the fault of the regime," said Attiya Faitoui, a history professor at Garyounis University in Benghazi. "Gadhafi sent them into the fire."

U.S. officials took Hifter to the United States, where he settled in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Va., home to a large Muslim immigrant population. He kept ties with anti-Gadhafi groups, and he said that the U.S. government defended him against attacks by the regime, although he didn't offer details.

"When I was in the United States, I was protected from all of Gadhafi's movements against me, his assassination attempts, by all agencies in the United States," he said. "I used to move from the U.S. to Europe and I felt safe, because I was protected."

On Feb. 14, three days before the protests that would launch the Libyan uprising, he endorsed the rebellion online from Virginia. In the days leading up to his departure for Benghazi, he was contacted by the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, who's been in Washington since January, and by CIA officials, he said.

In the meetings with U.S. officials, he asked for a range of advanced weapons: British-made Javelin anti-tank missiles, BM-21 rocket launchers, machine guns, armored personnel carriers, scout vehicles. The arms could yet turn the tide for a force equipped largely with old AK-47s, dirt-sprayed SUVs and Soviet-era tanks rescued from decades in storage.

Hifter has failed to deliver: To date, Qatar is the only foreign country to supply arms to the rebels.

Still, Hifter showed flashes of the arrogance that makes some in the opposition question his fitness for command. Particularly discomfiting is his rift with Younis, who, despite his long service to Gadhafi, brought special forces soldiers to the side of the rebels and propelled the uprising in Benghazi.

Hifter's comments about Younis made some people cringe.

"I don't like that he says that," Faitoui said. "We're in a more important battle, a great battle for all of Libya."

Hifter pledged to improve the rebels' command and control by placing the masses of eager but untrained volunteers under more experienced former army officers and demanding that the fighters follow orders.

His son, who lived with him in Virginia, is among those tasked with improving communication with NATO forces, which blamed a lack of coordination for two mistaken airstrikes on rebels last week that killed at least 18 people.

In the coming days, Hifter said, the rebels would regroup in Ajdabiya, the flash-point town where, as it happens, he was born and raised.

As a young man in the early 1960s, he and Gadhafi were briefly students together in military college. They were inspired by the charismatic pan-Arabism of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, which helped drive the revolution that brought Gadhafi to power.

Hifter said he hadn't thought about what would replace Gadhafi.

"I don't care what happens afterward. The only thing I care about is Gadhafi's head," he said.

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