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The conflict in Libya has entered a new phase, as the Islamists, some of whom have had Al-Qaeda ties, are locking horns with the secularists over who will lead the country. NATO is worried enough about the outcome to warn of the possibility of an Islamist takeover.
The first shot was fired between the two sides when the NTC’s top military commander, General Abdul Fattah Younes, was assassinated. It was blamed on the Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade, an Islamist militia with many fighters affiliated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The two sides have been focused on their common enemy — until now.
The Islamists seek to depose Mahmoud Jibril, the Prime Minister of the NTC, who is an opponent of them. The vice chairman of the NTC has also stated, “There is no place for an Islamic state in Libya.” The two leading Islamists are a popular preacher named Ali Sallabi and Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, the commander of forces in Libya. The rivalry became heated recently after the NTC established the Supreme Security Committee to bring all of the militias under its control, including that of Belhaj’s. The Islamists are condemning Jibril, with Sallabi calling him part of a group of “extreme secularists” who will bring about a “new era of tyranny and dictatorship” that will be worse than Qaddafi’s.
One problem facing the NTC is that 50-70 percent of the rebel fighters have Islamist ties. Belhaj was a founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a terrorist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda. In 1996, he declared jihad against “all the deviant groups that call for democracy or fight for the sake of it.” In 2007, Ayman al-Zawahiri endorsed him as the “emir” of the Libyan mujahideen. Another rebel commander, Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, has praised Al-Qaeda and was arrested in Pakistan. At least 25 of his fighters battled the U.S. military in Iraq. An NTC official says they were concerned about al-Hasidi, but overlooked his past when he agreed to work under the body’s authority. Islamist militias in Libya also have foreign sources of backing, such as the U.S. “ally,” Qatar.
The Islamists are wisely crafting their language so as not to alarm the West or the Libyan forces that seek genuine democracy. Sallabi, for example, says the Islamists are democratic and will follow the will of the people. “If people choose a woman to lead, as president, we have no problem with that. Women can dress the way they like; they are free,” he says.
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