Heavy losses in Libya’s Islamist ranks trigger concern among supporters
TUNIS - In a sign of a possibly changing tide in the battle for Tripoli, jihadist spiritual guide Sadiq al-Ghiriani expressed concern that Libya’s most powerful Islamist militia was suffering heavy losses in its attempt to ward off the advance of the Libyan National Army.
Ghiriani, the former grand mufti of Libya, said the Misrata militia had endured the “heaviest losses” in the fight against the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is trying to clear Tripoli of Islamists and various militias that control the city.
Misrata’s militias are the strongest Islamist force in Libya and are the main military rival to the LNA.
“I’m shocked by the large number of the Misrata fighters killed during the past week,” Ghiriani said on July 8. “We have to reverse the failures that led to the loss of such a high number of fighters.
“The duty calls upon us to examine the situation and shed the light into the factors and causes of these losses to avoid them in the future. When we look at the situation at the front line, we find out the situation is the same at the same point where we started more than three months ago.”
His assessment appeared to support statements by LNA commanders who said their strategy involves a war of attrition before swarming the militias to take control of the centre of Tripoli.
Fighting between the LNA and Islamist militias has killed more than 1,000 people, the United Nations said, a grim milestone in a conflict fuelled by Turkey’s intervention that is drawing expanded interference from other foreign powers.
The LNA began its offensive on Tripoli April 4, advancing from the capital’s southern outskirts against an array of militias and criminal gangs.
The LNA is widely recognised as the largest, most disciplined and best organised force with the most-effective intelligence arm, the most seasoned special fighting teams and unrivalled jet fighter fleet, including newly introduced F-16 warplanes.
Battle lines have changed little since the offensive began but the fight has intensified since June 27 when Islamist militias, backed by Turkey’s widening intervention, captured Gharyan, 100km south-west of Tripoli. LNA has its main base in Gharyan to supply troops in Tripoli.
Libya plunged into chaos after the 2011 NATO-backed Islamist uprising toppled long-ruling strongman Muammar Qaddafi. Armed groups proliferated in Tripoli and other cities in the west where the country has emerged as a major transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty for Europe.
Many nationalist and secularist groups in Libya see LNA Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar as the only leader capable of ending the chaotic rule by the militia and gangs and restore the country’s hold across its territory.
Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have lent support to the LNA as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups backed by Turkey and Qatar.
The LNA has stepped up its air strikes on the militias’ positions, including an attack early July 11 when a militia base was hit in Ain Zara, a fierce front in southern Tripoli. Five militia members from Nalout were killed, the LNA said.
LNA General Ali Saleh Qahtani outlined the force’s plans to take control of Tripoli.
“The first stage was to advance in the capital and take positions in a selected range of outposts according to a plan and instructions from the high command. The second stage is to drain the force of the enemy and avoid casualties among civilians and damage to civil facilities,” he said.
“The biggest and decisive goal is to finish off the battle to free Tripoli and, for that, we are waiting for the orders and instructions of the high command of the LNA to complete this stage with all its details.”
“Our morale is very high because we are fighting for the homeland and for restoring peace and security to the Libyan citizens,” Qahtani said.
He said the LNA “has broad popular support in Tripoli” because “people suffered the horror from the militias, the terrorist criminals and other jihadists.”
France broadly supports Haftar, deeming his forces as helpful in the fight against jihadists and other Islamist militants, especially in southern areas near Niger where France has key energy interests and in Mali where it had the largest military mission.
Paris said July 10 that anti-tank missiles France bought from the United States and that had been found in the LNA’s Gharyan base and lost to the militias backed by Turkey were never intended for sale.
The French Ministry of the Armed Forces said the missiles were intended for “self-protection of a French military unit deployed to carry out intelligence and counter-terrorism operations.”
It is the first time since 2016 that France publicly acknowledged it had special forces deployed in Libya.