Six weeks after Gadhafi's fall, Libya's rebels can't get their story straight

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 6, 2011 

TRIPOLI, Libya — Libya's interim rulers were busy this week: They cheered the imminent fall of Moammar Gadhafi's hometown, ordered trigger-happy revolutionary fighters out of the capital, formed a new caretaker Cabinet and announced the discovery of 900 corpses in two mass graves.

Only problem was, all those moves turned out to be premature, exaggerated or patently false.

The National Transitional Council, the interim body recognized by the United States and most U.N. members as Libya's highest authority, suffers serious credibility problems. Political grandstanding and the lack of clear military command have fueled a pattern of disinformation that exposes cracks in the council's veneer of leadership.

Unless the interim authorities improve their reliability fairly quickly, they run the risk of seeing the United States and other once-eager Western and regional allies distance themselves. Their honeymoon at home already is drawing to an end, with many Libyans upset over unfulfilled promises from the council and its semi-allied military commanders.

"I don't trust either the transitional council or the military councils," said Ahmed Salama, 39, a Tripoli resident whose main complaints about the council stem from its inability to control revolutionary fighters who've flooded the capital or to restore salaries for state workers who've returned to their jobs but have yet to be paid.

Alaa Murabit, 22, of the nonprofit Voice of Libyan Women, complained that the council's "ridiculous" infighting was an obstacle to the fulfillment of council pledges such as appointing more women to senior posts or sending wounded fighters abroad for treatment.

"The term 'empty promises' isn't even sufficient," she said.

For a country where a 42-year dictatorship collapsed within months, Libya would appear to be working remarkably well — on the surface, at least. Unlike Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Tripoli residents enjoy 24-hour electricity, schools have reopened, and families feel safe enough to stroll along the Mediterranean boardwalk late into the night.

But this semblance of normal life masks deep-rooted problems that the council has addressed largely with platitudes. Despite council members' repeated claims that they would move their headquarters to the capital, the council is still based in the more stable eastern city of Benghazi, where the uprising began.

McClatchy made several attempts to reach senior council spokesmen for comment, but they were in Benghazi and not expected again in Tripoli until this weekend. Attempts to reach them by phone failed because of the poor cellphone connection between the cities.

The council members, among them self-appointed technocrats and Western-friendly former exiles, lost face right at the start of the advance into Tripoli. They triumphantly announced the capture of Gadhafi's notorious son Saif al Islam, only to have him turn up two days later at Tripoli's Rixos Hotel.

They've also announced the death of his brother, the feared Khamis Gahdafi, on at least four occasions. It's still unclear whether he's dead or in hiding.

Even now, with Tripoli firmly under control of the former rebels, the council continues to make announcements that either aren't rooted in truth or can't be backed up.

Perhaps the biggest test of the council's legitimacy is the presence of heavy weapons inside Tripoli city limits.

Revolutionary forces, especially from western cities such as Misrata and Zintan, have worn out their welcome with their dangerous random shooting and a cavalier attitude toward private property that has Tripoli residents complaining of widespread car thefts and looting.

Yet there's no central command for all the rebel brigades, and therefore nobody with enough clout to actually rein in the young irregulars.

"There are a lot of committees, none of which seem to control things. They're all falling out with each other," said a Western diplomat in Tripoli, describing the three or more rival umbrella groups for the revolutionary forces. The diplomat spoke on the condition he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Brigade commanders from the west scoff at the council's empty threats to expel them from the city. The message is: They have the guns, so they're in charge.

"If they try to come by force, I'll never hand over my weapon. They need to negotiate, we'll listen, and we'll work something out," said Mohamed al Majog, a brigade commander from Misrata who had a pistol at his waist and a toothpick in his mouth as he reclined in the spacious office his men had commandeered in Tripoli.

Another complaint: Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the still popular chairman of the transitional council, calls for reconciliation among Libyans who fought on opposite sides of the six-month civil war that toppled Gadhafi, yet he's offered no real plan for how such a healing would take place.

Instead, internal revolts are occurring within universities, hospitals, oil companies and other institutions where anti-Gadhafi factions are simply kicking out their former managers, with no official guidance or supervision. Targeted Libyans complain that personal grudges rather than revolutionary ideals are behind some of the purges.

Ordinary families who supported or benefited from the old regime have been forcibly displaced, or are living under virtual house arrest, ostracized from daily life in their rebel-controlled neighborhoods. Chilling reports of revenge killings or detentions abound, but interim justice officials are ill equipped to investigate or stop such practices.

"I've personally helped to release prisoners we've found in both public and private places — underground rooms, people's gardens, inside shipping containers people took from the ports," said Ali Hassan Khushan, who belongs to a neighborhood council run by a Tripoli mosque.

"We checked their ideology, whether they were with the rebels or the regime," Khushan said. "If they were OK, we let them go. If not, we treated them and took them to the military council. Some of them had been badly beaten, even tortured."

Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, described the revolutionary council as a fractured organization that doesn't have a monopoly on violence. He added that too many people claim to speak for the council, leading to so many conflicting and false statements that it's become "a pathology."

Joshi said the council's disinformation, however, wasn't "debilitating" and that in the context of a civil war, it's done all right. By now, people have begun accepting that any statement coming from the council should be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

"The NTC propensity to over-promise predates Saif al Islam's 'capture' by a long time," Joshi said. "Although it's almost comic, it hasn't discredited them because it is such a part of how they operate."

Take, for example, this week's claims:

Top military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani told reporters in Tripoli that Sirte, the most important remaining regime stronghold, was "days, if not hours" away from falling to the rebels. Members of the press corps rolled their eyes; they'd been hearing the same line for weeks.

True, the former rebels made inroads into Sirte this week, seizing — and pillaging — a particularly hardcore loyalist district, according to Western news agencies in the area. By late Thursday, however, they were still meeting fierce resistance and no one could say for sure how soon the city would fall.

At another news conference, leaders of the Tripoli security command addressed the city's top concern: the presence of heavily armed gunmen wreaking havoc in neighborhoods. Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a veteran of jihadist campaigns in Afghanistan who heads the council, thanked the outside forces for their help with the liberation but said it was time they went home.

Tripoli residents didn't even have time to celebrate the long-awaited announcement. Within hours, gunmen from Zintan massed around Belhaj's offices, blocking the roads and threatening his life, according to CNN reporters on the scene. They also produced an arrest warrant for Belhaj and his deputy, signed by the Zintan Military Council, though it's unclear under what authority.

"They had no arrest warrant and they were acting illegally. They had no legal basis for this warrant," said Anis Sharif, a close aide to Belhaj. He predicted that "within weeks" there might be some coordinated central authority for all the brigades.

The NTC made good on its long-delayed pledge to name a new caretaker Cabinet, to be installed when all of Libya is under the former rebels' control. Once again, however, their actions fell short of their promises. Most of the names and posts were the same as before, with a little reshuffling.

On the day of the announcement, a McClatchy reporter asked a senior council media aide in Tripoli whether it was true that a new interim Cabinet had been appointed.

"Maybe," he answered with a shrug, "but all that was in Benghazi."

And then there's the issue of mass graves. Tripoli security officials passed out surgical masks and brought a forensics expert Wednesday on a bus tour for journalists to one of the supposed gravesites in Tripoli. The site consisted of long ditches in a normal cemetery. The trenches were empty, with not a corpse in sight and no sign that any had ever been there.

Officials explained that locals had reburied the bodies in other plots in the cemetery because of the stench; they produced grisly photos of rotting bodies that they said were snapped by Libyan locals who wanted to document the scene. That, however, was a lie. At least some of the photos were shot by a New York Times photographer, and from totally different sites.

When confronted with the discrepancy, officials changed their version, saying the bodies were from various "mass graves" — one with 35 bodies, another with 98, and so on. The math did not add up to the stated figure of 900. They promised to look into the source of the photographs.

The security forces also urged skeptical journalists to check out another purported gravesite, in Tajoura, on the outskirts of Tripoli.

"That one has 300," one official said. "Definitely."

(McClatchy special correspondent Haitham Amer in Tripoli and Mark Seibel of the Washington Bureau contributed.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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