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article imageLibya: A War Within a War? Rebel Frictions Escalate

By Stephen Morgan     Aug 4, 2011 in World
Saif Gaddafi has said in an interview with the New York Times that he has forged an alliance with Islamists against the rebel NTC. True or not, it again raises the question of whether the rebels are now hopelessly divided.
Yesterday's reports from eastern Libya indicate deepening divisions among the rebels, which could even potentially escalate into a fratricidal conflict. The outrage at the assassination of the rebel chief of command, Abdel-Fattah Younes is building into fury and frustration at the lack of clear answers to the circumstances of his death from the National Transitional Council.
After a week without any progress towards an investigation, Younes' tribe are angry at the contradictory statements issued by different actors and factions in the rebel leadership and the lack of explanations for what really happened. Practically every aspect of what took place is in dispute and nothing new has been said about it since the first days of the incident.
A rebel spokesman has promised that a committee would be set up to look into what happened, but when questioned he refused to give any details about the its character or remit. There is much distrust over whether such an investigation will be truly transparent or will take place at all. Younes's tribe and family, as well as troops loyal to him, fear that there will be a whitewash, in order to conceal controversial and incriminating revelations about the rebel leaders.
Younes's family are openly suspicious of a cover up. According to Al Jazeera, his son Mohammed told Reuters he believed that "From the start, there was an intention of betrayal and treason.” Such is the mistrust of the NTC among the members of Younes' tribe that they would not allow NTC officials to pay condolences during the traditional mourning days. The reason given was that the tribe “feel that either the council had a hand in it or they are neglecting it".
On Tuesday, there was a huge gathering of 90 tribes organized by Younes's own Ubaideyat tribe to discuss the issue at the family's farm in Benghazi. During, what was often a heated discussion, speakers called for an investigation of all the rebel officials, including senior members of the NTC.
The New York Times reported that “one young man stood up and asked members of the tribe to gather that evening with their weapons in a show of force.” One of Younes' sons said, “we are trying to calm and control the youth of the tribe” For the moment, most of the tribal elders want unity and are still prepared to give the NTC a chance, in order “to prevent an insurrection.”
But they also warned that unless the NTC began acting soon, they would take the investigation into their own hands. The family have also said that they intend to take the issue to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, but this would be a very long procedure, even if accepted. More worryingly, one of Younes' sons threatened that "If the [NTC] doesn't bring us justice, and if the [international] judiciary don't bring us justice, then we will leave it to the tribe to bring us justice."
The gravity of the situation is shown by the fact that Younes' Ubaideyat tribe are the biggest in the East with some 400,000 members, which, if mobilized, would be a force, which no militia could defeat.
Yesterday, in response to the situation, another powerful group, the February 17 Coalition, which initially led the revolution, and which set up the NTC, demanded the resignation of the ministers of defense and international affairs for their alleged role in the death of General Younes. They accused Ali Alasawi, its international affairs minister, of issuing the warrant. The group's leader, Abdulsalam El Musmari (significantly a judge) attacked the NTC over the events leading up to Younes' death and its handing of the affair.
The February 17 Coalition has become a rather shadowy group, with powerful members, but whose relationship with the official NTC is now somewhat murky. Quite possibly it is aligned with one of the factions within the NTC leadership itself. Furthermore, what its relationship is towards the NTC's own militia, the “17 Brigade,” who recently battled with the pro-Gaddafi brigade in Benghazi, is also unclear.
It may well be that it has made the call for the two NTC members to resign as a way of circumnavigating the need for a damaging investigation. Even so, the fact that such an important group has also criticized the NTC highlights again the severe tensions in the rebel leadership. Most certainly it does nothing to improve its already tarnished public image. Undoubtedly, this attack will further undermine its authority and credibility among the rebel forces and the population at large.
The whole affair is bringing to light other divisions and problems, which have existed for some time and which seem to have been covered up in the interests of the cause. In the first place, before the affair took place, the popularity of the NTC was already not as strong as was portrayed.
Back in May there was a report in the Washington Times of demonstrations against the NTC in Benghazi calling it unrepresentative, unelected and unaccountable. In particular, there were protests about the way it functioned, the secrecy surrounding its decision-making and the character of the members in the leadership. Anger among the youth was particular fierce, with some of them calling for a “new revolution.”
Moreover, the power base of the NTC among the rebel fighters is also not as solid as the West might hope and there is some evidence of a generalized suspicion towards the NTC among many rebels. In his blog, Doug Sanders, an editor with the Canadian Globe and Mail, quotes Mohammed Musa El-Maghrabi, who is said to represent the rebel fighters in nearby Brega.
“While obviously we feel that the NTC is better than Gadhafi rule, they are only representing Benghazi – we do not have any sense of them representing Brega,” Mr. El-Maghraba said before meeting NTC leaders Thursday. “To us, it looks like the NTC is a foreign government, full of nepotism and corruption. This worries us. Do we want to have a Gadhafi dictatorship replaced with a Benghazi dictatorship?” These are the fighters most closely linked to Benghazi, so one can't assume that the attitudes of rebel forces in Misrata and the Western Mountains are any better.
Indeed, only recently the UK Guardian reported that the fighters in Misrata refuse to fight alongside reinforcements sent from Benghazi or to take orders from them and even wear the same insignia. Likewise, in the Western Mountains there are underlying traditional divisions. Rebels have said that local disputes between different towns have been “temporarily” put to one side, in order to fight Gaddafi's forces.
The first group to be implicated in the assassination of General Younes was the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, which is the most powerful militia among all the rebel groups. They have their own independent police and security forces. They also claim to command most of the rebel troops on the 3 fronts and apparently control Libya's main oil fields in the southeast as well. They have always refused to accept orders from the Central Command under General Younes, along with the other ex-Gaddafi deserters in the NTC leadership, about whom they have suspicions of mixed loyalties. On the day of his death, they even went as far as to say they had evidence that Younes was a traitor and would reveal it in a few days.
It was the Martyrs brigade's security forces, which were first said to have taken Younes from his HQ and one of their commanders was later arrested and confessed to the crime. This, along with the implication of another group of Islamists under their command called the Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade, has been quietly dropped. The word is that the NTC leaders dare not challenge the Islamists, because of their powerful influence and the fact that they are known as the most fierce fighters.
Worrying still were the statements made by Gaddafi's son Saif in an interview with the New York Times yesterday. Although one must treat claims by Gaddafi with some caution, he said that the regime had been in contact directly with Islamists within the rebel forces about doing a deal without the NTC. What was interesting was that he said the discussions were with a Mr. Sallabi. The gentlemen was contacted by the paper afterward and he confirmed that he has had talks with Saif. Mr. Sallabi is not only a leading Islamist, but he is also the head of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade.
In all, there are about 30 different militias operating in rebel territory. An attempt has been made to unite them under the NTC's umbrella group called the “Union of Revolutionary Forces.” This has met with some success, but just how unified they really are and for how long is another question.
The fact that many militias and vigilante groups continue to operate outside the command of the NTC was underlined by the call made by NTC chief, Abdel Jalil on the day of Younes's assassination. He demanded that all remaining militia groups join the Union immediately- an appeal now backed up by the threat of force against any who refuse.
What is also worrying is the affair surrounding the battle with the supposedly, pro-Gaddafi militia unearthed in Benghazi, the al-Nidaa Brigade. Just how Gaddafi infiltrated an entire brigade into the rebel held east is unanswered. But the fact that they went undetected and even fought on the side of the rebels tends to suggest that they were, in fact, a militia which changed sides. They most definitely continued to have links to some members of the tribe their name claimed to represent, as before the assault, tribal elders were brought in to try to negotiate a surrender.
Whatever happens concerning Younes's death a major shake up of the NTC is on the cards. Whether this will unify the forces fighting for it or divide them further will have to be seen. Concerning the likelihood of an impartial and transparent investigation, the odds seem stacked against it.
Furthermore, one has to take into account that, as a result of the long years of the Gaddafi dictatorship, notions of what true justice is and how it is practiced have not yet sunk deep roots into the emerging society. Libya today is a nation at war, where the norm is to settle disputes by violence and this fact doesn't bode well for how the current controversy will finally be settled.
More about Libya, Gaddafi, Saif alIslam Gaddafi, Talks, Islamists
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