Tripoli faceoff pits LNA against militias
BENGHAZI - Libya is on the verge of an all-out war between the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field marshal Khalifa Haftar and a rogues' gallery of militias backing the Tripoli-based government of Fayez Sarraj.
The UN and many Western nations, especially Italy, support a transitional government set up in Tripoli in 2016 and led by Fayez Sarraj, a technocrat with no military experience. His government has courted armed militias for its own protection and these groups have vowed to repel the LNA forces.
Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says the main Tripoli militias dominate Sarraj's government and have infiltrated its institutions to pillage state resources. In a report published last year, he described them as "criminal networks straddling business, politics and administration."
They include the Special Deterrent Force, led by Salafist commander Abdel-Rauf Kara, which controls the entrances to Tripoli as well as Matiga, the capital's only functioning airport. The Nawasi Brigade, led by Salafist Mustafa Qadro, controls the naval base that houses Sarraj's government.
The Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade is led by Haitham al-Tajuri, who was a bus driver before the 2011 uprising but now tools around the capital in a white Mercedes SUV, sporting clothes by Versace and Dolce & Gabbana. His forces control much of Tripoli, including the southern outskirts.
A UN report in 2016 said al-Tajuri and his associates had threatened Central Bank employees in order to receive letters of credit worth more than $20 million. His group was also behind the brief kidnapping of a former prime minister in 2017.
The western towns of Misrata and Zawiya saw some of the heaviest fighting during the 2011 uprising and boast powerful local militias allied with the Sarraj government.
The Misratans also have a large number of tanks they captured from former leader Muammar Qaddafi's forces in 2011.
Zawiya is home to the Martyrs of Victory Brigade, another armed militia led by Mahmoud Kachlaf, who is under UN sanctions for allegedly running a large migrant smuggling network. He is accused of working with the commander of the Libyan coast guard in Zawiya to intercept boats run by rival smuggling networks and then detain, abuse and exploit migrants.
A loose alliance of militias, including some affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood group, seized Tripoli in 2014 after refusing to accept the results of parliamentary elections won by their rivals. The new parliament relocated to eastern Libya and later allied itself with Haftar, resulting in competing governments.
The militias, known as Libya Dawn, are widely believed to have received support from Turkey and Qatar, which are also believed to have backed Islamist factions during the NATO-backed 2011 uprising.
The Steadfastness Front, led by militia leader Saleh Badi, is seen as the successor to the alliance, which fractured after the UN-backed government was established. He is under UN and US sanctions for repeatedly attacking forces allied with Sarraj's government, most recently last August. But for now, he is siding with them against the LNA.
Fighting illegal migration has led to Italy financing some of the militias. After 2011, Libya emerged as a major conduit for refugees and migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa for a better life in Europe. Thousands of migrants have perished while trying to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats while others have been detained and abused by smugglers and armed groups.
The European Union has provided aid to Sarraj's government to help stem the flow of migrants, and Italy has provided vessels and training to the Libyan coast guard.
The Associated Press reported in 2017 that Italy had reached an agreement with the UN-backed government to pay militias implicated in trafficking to prevent migrants from departing from the port city of Sabratha. Security officials at the time warned that the groups would use the aid to buy arms and recruit fighters.