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World Libya's strongman of the east looks to Washington

Pulverized buildings daubed with the names of fallen fighters line the ghostly seafront in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. Land mines and booby-trapped bodies are scattered across the rubble.

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A Libyan Strongman Looks to Washington, but a Health Crisis Looms play

A Libyan Strongman Looks to Washington, but a Health Crisis Looms

(The New York Times)

This picture of devastation is what victory looks like for Gen. Khalifa Hifter, the military strongman whose forces routed the last Islamist militias from Benghazi in December.

After three years of grinding combat, and with the help of foreign allies, Hifter controls most of eastern Libya and has become the most powerful if polarizing figure in a fractured landscape.

Now, as he aims to consolidate and expand his power, he is looking to woo the Trump administration. In December, he hired a firm of Washington lobbyists to burnish his image as a potential future leader of his country and to counter critics who denounce him as a crude warlord.

He has allowed the CIA to establish a base in Benghazi — a low-key U.S. return to the city after Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed there in 2012 — and a handful of U.S. Special Forces operators are present at the city’s main airport.

The nomination of CIA Director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state could further align Hifter with the United States. Pompeo, whose confirmation hearing took place Thursday, and Hifter, a onetime CIA asset, are avowedly hostile to all forms of political Islam.

But Hifter’s ascent has been called into question with news that the 75-year-old commander had been airlifted to a hospital in Paris, where French news media reported that he was being treated for a stroke. After initial denials, his aides privately conceded Thursday that he had undergone emergency treatment. But they offered no specifics about condition or his whereabouts.

The mystery plunged Libya’s chaotic politics into greater-than-usual levels of speculation. If restoring some order to eastern Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi depended on the force of Hifter’s personality, there were fears of a return to bloody anarchy if he were suddenly out of the picture.

“There was a time last year when Hifter was the man of the hour — people were speculating he could make it to Tripoli,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Then things cooled off a bit, and cracks appeared in his coalition. And now nobody’s sure what will come next.”

Foreign Friends

Amid the competing militias ranging in post-Gadhafi Libya, Hifter rose to power with the help of foreign firepower and a canny ability to play allies off one another. Warplanes deployed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt pummeled his enemies and helped him capture oil terminals. French paramilitaries fought on his front lines in Benghazi, where three were killed in 2016. Saudi Arabia provided funding.

And to the discomfort of U.S. officials, Russian special forces commandos last year delivered ammunition and intelligence to Hifter from their bases in western Egypt, a former U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.

For much of his life, Hifter was tied to the United States.

In the late 1980s, as a senior Libyan army officer living in exile in Chad, he led a CIA-backed effort to oust Gadhafi. The plot failed and Hifter ended up in suburban Virginia, where he lived for two decades, eventually becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen.

But after he returned to Libya in 2011 with brash ambitions of seizing power, U.S. officials kept him at arms length.

Since 2015, U.S. policy has backed the rival U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, a notoriously weak administration, which barely controls a single district of the capital but which remains the main Western hope for a political solution in Libya. The unity government’s prime minister, Fayez Serraj, met with President Donald Trump in the White House in December.

In the past year, though, as Hifter’s troops racked up major victories — advancing across Benghazi and seizing Libya’s biggest oil terminal — European leaders started to openly court him.

Last summer, he traveled to Paris at the invitation of President Emmanuel Macron, met Italy’s defense minister in Rome and welcomed the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, to his fortified hilltop headquarters outside Benghazi.

Hifter presents himself to the West as an unflinching warrior against political Islam in the mold of Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is a former general. Critics say that approach strengthens his enemies, though, by forcing moderate and extremist Islamist groups together.

Although the septuagenarian commander has styled himself as a great military leader, with a fondness for pomp and titles, experts say his true skill is in forging alliances. His Libyan National Army is, in fact, a coalition of militias and regular army units.

Since last year he has used those skills to extend his influence into the deserts of southern Libya, a vast and largely lawless area where he has forged a number of tribal alliances, and which in recent years has become the main focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The United States has carried out nine missile strikes in southern Libya, mostly targeting Islamic State militants, since Trump took office.

But even before his recent health problems, Libya experts warned that Hifter may not have been as strong as he pretended and that the forces that helped him rise to prominence in the east could also be his undoing.

A Shaky Coalition

In January, twin car bombings killed 35 people as outside a mosque in eastern Benghazi. Islamist militants were suspected. Hours later, one of Hifter’s top commanders dragged 10 blindfolded Islamist prisoners onto a street and, as a camera recorded his actions, shot each one in the head with a rifle.

The commander, Mahmoud al-Werfalli, was already wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for his alleged role in previous summary executions. But when Hifter detained Werfalli, promising to bring him to a military trial, armed supporters burned tires in the streets and shut down major roads.

Hifter was forced to back down. The commander of the Benghazi special forces brigade, Wanis Bukhamada, defused the protests by promising that Werfalli would not be sent to the international court. “This is a matter for the Libyan courts,” he said. Libyan courts, such as they are, have yet to take up the case.

That was the second challenge to Hifter’s authority. In November, a tribal commander, Faraj Gaaim, was detained after he demanded on television that Hifter step down.

Tribal opponents grumble that Hifter’s army is dominated by his Furjan clan and that the top positions are occupied by his sons. For Benghazi residents, the complaint is that Salafist fighters — religious conservatives who helped him seize Benghazi — are now exerting a disproportionate influence on daily life in the city.

In the past year Salafist preachers have taken over many mosques, and Salafist officials have shut down concerts and tried to stop women from traveling while unaccompanied.

Analysts say that each of these groups has its own constituency and agenda, and that managing them is a delicate balance.

“It’s like a bargain with the devil,” said Naseim Omeish, 25, a development official. “They get control of the mosques so they can consolidate their power. But that can go wrong.”

A Reluctant Democrat

Western efforts to bring Hifter to the negotiating table have come to naught. In Paris last summer, he signed an agreement with Tripoli to hold elections by the end of 2018, but that now seems a distant possibility.

In interviews, Hifter has shown little enthusiasm for a free vote. “Today’s Libya is not ripe for democracy,” he told the French magazine Jeune Afrique last month. “Perhaps future generations will succeed.”

Many critics, especially in western Libya, see that as further proof that he is little more than a reconstituted version of Gadhafi, relishing power for power’s sake and riding roughshod over basic freedoms and human rights. A U.N. report published this week highlighted torture, arbitrary detention and other abuses at jails run by Hifter, as well as at those run by rival militias in the west.

Supporters say that, after seven years of chaos, a Gadhafi- or el-Sissi-style strongman may be exactly what Libya needs. “Believe me, I lost my faith in elections,” said Amal Bugaighis, a lawyer and civil society activist in Benghazi.

In recent months, Hifter participated in talks with military officials from western Libya, mediated by Egypt, over proposals to forge a united national army.

But that is now on hold, as all eyes in Libya turn to the French hospital where he is undergoing treatment. A wild range of rumors circulated in Libya on Thursday, ranging from accounts that he was recovering well from his treatment to those suggesting he had in fact died.

His spokesman said in a tweet Wednesday that “all the news” about Hifter’s health was false. “Marshal Hifter is in excellent health, and he is following his daily general command duties,” the spokesman said.

Were Hifter to become incapacitated, one strong possibility is that the coalition that he so carefully assembled to take control of Benghazi would come apart at the seams, riven by strains and lacking a natural successor, said Wehrey, the analyst.

“For all Hifter’s faults, he was the glue binding it all together,” he said. “There’s no comparable figure to fill his shoes.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

DECLAN WALSH © 2018 The New York Times

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