A familiar face emerges to lead Libya's new army

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 14, 2011 

ZAWIYAH, Libya — Former Libyan military officers packed an auditorium here on Wednesday to hear the man who'sbeen appointed to lead the country's new army as the movement that deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi last month tries to consolidate its control.

But leading the discussion wasn't the man most Western news reporters have focused on in recent weeks, Hakim Belhaj, the leader of rebel forces in Tripoli and a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who was imprisoned by Gadhafi after the CIA captured him in Southeast Asia in 2004.

Instead, the man who spoke to the eager former officers was Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who defected from Gadhafi's army in 1987 and moved to the United States, where he lived in the Washington suburbs for decades before returning to Libya earlier this year.

Officers crowded into the auditorium to hear Hifter's presentation, many sitting in the aisles or standing wherever space was available. One of the officers, annoyed by a speaker who preceded Hifter, encouraged the speaker to hurry up.

"We came to hear Gen. Hifter!" the man shouted, to loud applause.

In an interview after the meeting, Hifter said he'd never met Belhaj, and there was an immediate tension between Hifter's warm welcome and Belhaj's followers that recalled the tension that also pervaded the rebel military before their sudden string of victories that led to the fall of Tripoli three weeks ago. Then it was Hifter pitted against former Gadhafi Interior Minister Abdul-Fattah Younis, the rebel commander killed by his own men in late July.

It was unclear how Hifter would reconcile his force with the thousands of Libyans who picked up weapons to depose the dictator.

"The Tripoli Military Council is responsible for security here until a national army is set up," said Anis al Sharif, Belhaj's spokesman.

Sharif said Belhaj's position had been confirmed on Tuesday during a meeting with Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the chairman of the rebel National Transitional Council and the country's de facto head of state.

But Hifter said his appointment supersedes Belhaj's position.

"Now we will rebuild the army," Hifter said. "We are responsible for the entire country. Belhaj is in charge of the revolutionaries in Tripoli."

Hifter said his forces were working with revolutionary forces across the country. Both groups have sent fighters to the front lines, where revolutionary forces are still fighting in cities that remain loyal to Gadhafi. It's unclear how many fighters are under either man's control.

An even further disconnect is evident all over western Libya. Many revolutionary commands remain local, independent of Belhaj's command. Brigades of fighters from other cities were still present in Tripoli on Wednesday, though in lesser numbers than in past weeks.

Sharif said that a formal announcement regarding the withdrawal from Tripoli of fighters from other cities was "being negotiated" and would be made in the next week.

Despite having never met him, Hifter was complimentary of Belhaj.

"I think he's a good guy," said Hifter. "He's Libyan."

There has been widespread speculation that Hifter, who spent his exile in Fairfax, Va., had worked with the CIA. He did not deny having had contact with the U.S. intelligence agency but said he had never worked for it.

Hifter said his warm welcome was the result of more than a decade of working with Libyan dissidents and exiles, some of the same men he had led in battle in various Arab and African countries where Gadhafi sent his military in the 1980s and 1990s. Hifter was the commander of Gadhafi's disastrous intervention in Chad in the 1980s.

"They know me, and in some cases I worked with their fathers," he said.

Hifter said there was no hurry in pressing the offensives against the last urban areas controlled by Gadhafi.

"We can be patient. The enemy will get tired. Bani Walid will take one more week," he said, referring to the city of 70,000 about 80 miles southeast of Tripoli that remains under control of Gadhafi's forces. "Maximum."

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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