Libyan rebel efforts frustrated by internal disputes over leadership

Libya's revolutionary leadership is split over competing claims to command its armed campaign as the rebels attempt to shore up their credibility in the west after losing almost all the territory gained by foreign air strikes.

The dispute comes as the military leadership continues to struggle with the lack of discipline that has been so damaging to its campaign and which led to the death of 13 rebel fighters and medics at the weekend after one of them indiscriminately fired an anti-aircraft gun and provoked a western air strike. Four vehicles were destroyed including an ambulance.

The revolutionary council described the incident near the town of Brega as a "terrible mistake" for which it took responsibility.

The rebels continued a standoff with Muammar Gaddafi's army near the scene of the air strike after making a show of bringing better trained and more disciplined troops to the front along with larger weapons in an attempt to turn around the image of the their force as chaotic, lacking in tactics and largely unable to fight.

Fighting also continued in the two rebel enclaves in the west of the country, Misrata and Zintan, on Sunday. Doctors trapped at the hospital in Misrata said scores of people had died in recent days under attack from Gaddafi's forces.

The revolutionary leadership privately concedes a military victory is unlikely, even with the support of western air strikes. It is increasingly looking to a diplomatic track or the collapse of the regime from within as the best hope of removing Gaddafi, although it is still attempting to encourage popular uprisings in cities under the control of the Libyan leader.

There is an awareness in the rebels' de facto capital, Benghazi, that the military campaign needs to be continued as a means of defence and to keep the pressure on Gaddafi. The revolutionary leadership also recognises that it needs to build a credible military force amid creeping concern in the west over how thousands of evidently undisciplined but armed young men might behave as they move in to other towns.

But that effort appears to be undermined by an internal dispute over who is in charge of reviving the rebels' military fortunes after a week of stunning setbacks.

Last week, the revolution's military wing appointed its own spokesman, Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani.

He announced that Colonel Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, who fought in Libya's war against Chad in the 1980s before he was captured and joined a CIA-run anti-Gaddafi force, had been appointed commander of the military campaign.

According to the announcement, he replaced General Abdel Fatah Younis – Gaddafi's interior minister until two months ago and former head of Libya's special forces who defected to the rebels at the beginning of the revolution.

But at the weekend, the revolutionary administration announced that Younis was back in charge. When confronted with this flip-flop, the council denied there had ever been a change.

Both men have their constituencies and their critics given their deeply tainted pasts. Haftar is popular among some of the civilian volunteers who make up the bulk of the rebel forces because of his long opposition to Gaddafi.

After the Chad war, he was recruited as commander of an anti-Gaddafi force put together by the CIA and funded in part by Saddam Hussein. When that failed, Haftar moved to Virginia where he lived for 20 years not far from the CIA headquarters, raising questions among his present critics about how close past ties remain.

Some members of the revolutionary political leadership say Haftar returned to Libya with a swaggering arrogance and an expectation that he would automatically be put in charge of the armed fight against Gaddafi.

The revolutionary council had already appointed Omar Hariri as the de facto defence minister and Younis as the military commander in the belief that he would win over defectors from Gaddafi's army who are supposed to provide the backbone of the rebel force, although so far there has been limited evidence of it.

"We defined the military leadership before the arrival of Haftar from the United States," said Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, vice president of the Interim National Council. "We told Mr Haftar that if he wants, he can work within the structure that we have laid out."

As Younis failed to deliver, twice losing gains already made against Gaddafi's forces including more recently by the air strikes, the fighters started to look elsewhere.

There was already considerable suspicion about Younis among many ordinary Libyans in the rebel-held territory because of his long service to Gaddafi and the belief that as interior minister it is impossible for him not to be implicated in some of the regime's crimes. The council had to work hard to get them to accept his appointment.

Last week, the military appeared to try to bypass the council by announcing that Haftar had been appointed commander with Younis downgraded to chief of staff. The council disagreed.

[Source: By Chris McGreal, Benghazi, The Guardian, London, 03Apr11]

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