Libya’s Haftar eyes Tripoli after control of Benghazi
Tunis- Eastern Libya military commander Khalifa Haftar has pledged to forge ahead to Tripoli after defeating extremist groups in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city.
“Your armed forces convey to you the good news of the total and undeniable liberation of Benghazi from terrorism and inform you of the victory of the national army in its battle against terrorism,” Haftar said early this month.
The 3-year-old war against Islamist factions in Benghazi claimed the lives of 5,000 Libyan National Army (LNA) soldiers and left much of the city in ruins.
Days after announcing victory, Haftar flew to the United Arab Emirates to display support for the coalition of Arab countries working to thwart alleged Qatari-funded extremism.
While supporting UN Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj, the US administration of President Donald Trump, which prioritises the fight against radical Islamists, began contacts with Haftar even before his victory against extremists.
Haftar maintains support from the UAE and Egypt and his recent statements against Qatari-backed Islamists aligned him with Saudi-led Arab bloc opposing Doha’s policies in the region.
By positioning himself within the broader anti-Qatar drive, Haftar likely expects to firm up his backing from Arab powers in the Middle East and to tap into the growing well of resentment at home against Islamists and Qatar, which many Libyans blame for trampling on the country’s sovereignty after the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi.
Many Libyans fault Islamists for preventing the country from rebuilding the army, developing sound policies and ensuring a fair transition of power after the 2014 elections in which Islamists won only about 2% of the vote.
Anti-Islamist figures allege that Qatar was among the sources of this instability. Not only did the tiny Gulf state encourage Islamists to forcibly take control of state institutions in 2014, they claim, Doha funnelled financial and military support to Islamists, making them a disproportionately formidable force throughout the country.
Libya devolved into chaos. Islamists with significant military and financial means spread lawlessness and crime, including assassinating army officers and other security officials.
Amid the turmoil, Haftar gained a reputation as a military leader who could restore law and order. After initially failing to take power in Tripoli, Haftar moved to eastern Libya, where he was received as a hero for his anti-Islamist stance despite being from the western Libyan Ferjan tribe.
Haftar met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and the country’s armed forces deputy-chief, Major-General Eisa Saif al-Mazrouei, in Abu Dhabi on July 8.
Sheikh Mohammed congratulated Haftar for his victory and wished him “good luck” in “(liberating) all of Libya from these destructive menaces,” a statement carried by state media said.
Statements from Algeria, France and the United Kingdom hailed Haftar’s victory in Benghazi as a step towards restoring “peace” and “security” across Libya.
Such far-reaching support prompted fears among Islamists and their allies in western Libya that Haftar, whom they consider an aspiring dictator, would pursue power in Tripoli.
Following the announcement of the military victory in Benghazi, Haftar’s spokesman, Colonel Ahmed Mismari, warned political factions and militias that “they have to come up with a programme for the salvation of Libya and its citizens within six months. Otherwise, the army will talk in time.”
Libyan political commentators interpreted the warning as a precursor to Haftar’s plan to take control of Tripoli by December, when the UN-backed political accord supporting the GNA expires.
Haftar and Sarraj, meeting in May in Abu Dhabi, agreed to fight terrorism and have presidential elections.
“If Haftar and his forces have a solution to ending the sufferings of the Libyan people, why have they failed to come forward with such a solution?” asked Libyan political analyst Alaa Farouk.
“Such talks are part of the increasing pressure on the civilian government.”
Said Ramadane, a Libyan political writer, said the fight against radical Islamists in Tripoli could unite the armed forces of Sarraj and Haftar, both of whom are aligned against Qatar-backed Islamists.
“It is not reasonable that the Libyan Army headed by Haftar remains on the sidelines (in Tripoli),” said Ramadane. “Haftar’s army must unite its forces with the forces under the command of Sarraj to protect Tripoli from the extremists.”
Haftar vowed to “free Tripoli” but gave no specific timetable or details about his military strategy.