Infighting hinders Libya rebel leadership

Opposition also stalled on battlefield

By Kareem Fahim
New York Times / April 4, 2011

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BENGHAZI, Libya — As the struggle with Moammar Khadafy threatens to settle into a stalemate, Libya’s rebel government is showing growing strains that could hurt its effort to complete a revolution and jeopardize its requests for foreign military aid and recognition.

The divisions were evident last week, when the three men commanding the opposition forces were summoned to a series of meetings in Benghazi, the rebel capital, to discuss the sagging battlefield fortunes.

The rebel army’s nominal leader, Abdul Fattah Younes, a former interior minister and friend of Khadafy whom many rebel leaders distrusted, could offer little explanation for the recent military stumbles, two people with knowledge of the meetings said.

Making matters worse, the men could hardly stand one another. They included Khalifa Heftar, a former general who returned recently from exile in the United States and appointed himself as the rebel field commander, and Omar el-Hariri, a former political prisoner who occupied the largely ceremonial role of defense minister.

“They behaved like children,’’ said Fathi Baja, a political science professor who heads the rebel political committee.

Little was accomplished in the meetings, the participants said. When they concluded late last week, Younes was still head of the army and el-Hariri remained as defense minister. Only Heftar, who reportedly refused to work with Younes, was forced out, hinting at divisions to come.

Militarily, the rebellion appears to be locked in a stalemate. On the eastern front, near the oil town of Brega, the two sides exchanged rocket and mortar fire for several hours yesterday but the battle lines did not change. Loyalists continued to hold most of the town, with the rebel forces massed on the road to the northeast of the city.

The United States has agreed to NATO’s request for a 48-hour extension of American participation in coalition airstrikes against Libyan military targets. Air Force AC-130 gunships and A-10 Thunderbolts and Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers will continue to attack Khadafy’s troops and other sites through tonight.

In an appearance yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union,’’ General James L. Jones, President Obama’s former national security adviser, said that the United States “is buying space for the opposition to get organized.’’

But a White House official said last week that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was reluctant to send arms to the rebels “because of the unknowns’’ about who they are, their backgrounds, and motivations.

The Benghazi meeting on the faltering military effort was a study in the struggles of an inexperienced rebel movement trying to assert its authority, hold on to its revolutionary ideals, and learn how to run a country on the job.

In a country where politics was dominated for decades by Khadafy, his family, and his loyalists, the rebels have turned for leadership to former government figures and exiles they seem to know by reputation alone, and whose motives they do not always trust.

There have been several hopeful signs. Specialists on oil and the economy have joined the rebel ranks, and a rebel spokesman prone to delusional announcements was quietly replaced. Police officers appeared on the streets of Benghazi last week, in crisp new uniforms. Despite the dismal progress on the battlefield, thousands of Libyan men volunteer to travel to the front every week.

Still, many decisions are made in secret and are leaked to Libyans piecemeal, by a few rebel leaders who seem to enjoy seeing themselves on Al-Jazeera, the satellite news channel. But with each day that Khadafy remains in power, the self-appointed leaders of the rebel movement face growing questions about their own legitimacy and choices.

The Libyan rebels have insisted on removing Khadafy and his sons from power, and said they would not negotiate with them. But an envoy of Khadafy’s government told Greece’s prime minister yesterday that the Libyan leader was seeking a way out of his country’s crisis two weeks after the start of international airstrikes, the Associated Press reported, quoting Greek officials.

Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, a former Libyan prime minister who has served as a Khadafy envoy during the crisis, will travel next to Turkey and Malta in a sign that the regime may be softening its hard line in the face of the sustained attacks.

“From the Libyan envoy’s comments it appears that the regime is seeking a solution,’’ Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said after the meeting.

In a separate development, a diplomat with close ties to the Libyan government said one of Khadafy’s sons, Seif el-Islam Khadafy, is proposing a resolution to the conflict that would entail his father relinquishing power for a transition to constitutional democracy under his son’s direction.

Neither Khadafy nor the rebels seeking his ouster appear ready to accept such a proposal without more negotiation, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity to divulge private conversations within the government. “This is the beginning position of the opposition, and this is the beginning position of the Libyan government,’’ the diplomat said. “But the bargaining has yet to commence.’’

Libyan officials have declined to comment on any talks. Speculation has swirled about a possible proposal from the Khadafy camp since Seif al-Islam el-Khadafy’s top aide, Mohamed Ismail, traveled to London for undisclosed talks with the British several days ago. The diplomat’s account is the first insight into the content of those talks and the latest sign that the Khadafy government may be feeling the pressure of the allied airstrikes.

The Libyan opposition is supposed to be represented by a national council, but it has become increasingly difficult to locate the center of the rebels’ power.

Many rebels have never met two of their most prominent leaders: Mahmoud Jibril, an exiled former government official, and Ali Essawi, the former Libyan ambassador to India.

Jibril has not returned to Libya since the uprising began, spending much of his time meeting overseas with foreign leaders. The two sit on a rebel executive council, one of several governing structures that the rebels refuse to call a government.

Calling it one, they say, might alienate opposition figures in Western Libya and promote fears about a civil war. The rebels also clearly think that Jibril, who was educated in the United States, and another executive committee member, Ali Tarhouni, who until recently taught economics at the University of Washington, will be able to help sell the rebels’ cause abroad.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report. top stories on Twitter

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