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Before the attack, Ansar al-Shariah had been working with the municipal government to manage security in Benghazi. It had been charged among other responsibilities with guarding the local hospital.

The killings in Benghazi fueled popular anger against the militias. Just a week after the assault on the U.S. Consulate, tens of thousands of Benghazis attacked the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah and another militia in Benghazi and drove them out of town.

‘Like a vacuum’

The government took advantage of the public anger.

In the days after the attack, authorities carried out high-profile weapon hand-ins in Tripoli and Benghazi and issued ultimatums for all militias to submit entirely to government control.

“We know people are angry with the militias,” said Taher Khalifa, a former computer engineer who is now the head of investigations for the 8th Special Protection Force, a police unit based in the Tripoli district of Souq al-Jumaa that was once a militia.

“They don’t want to see weapons everywhere, and they want the police to be symbols of the state and wear uniforms,” acknowledged Khalifa, although few of his men wore anything resembling a police uniform.

Mr. Gamaty, the politician and militia foe, was himself kidnapped the night of Oct. 6 by a militia from the western mountain city of Zintan and held for several hours before he was dumped in a field and warned to mute his criticism.

He said the government must build up a well-equipped security force that could then be used to subdue the militias if they refused to disband or be integrated, much like the army’s quick-reaction force that dispersed the demonstration outside parliament last month.

There are government committees that are supposed to integrate the militias with the regular uniformed police and army, but there has been little progress on that front, Mr. Gamaty said.

“It’s not easy to inherit a country with no state institutions, with no constitution, no army, no functioning security apparatus,” he said. “It’s almost like a vacuum.”

Still he and other critics say Libya’s new government has not yet shown the resolve or decisiveness to really tackle the problem. The congress elected in July has yet to even produce a government, dashing the high expectations after Gadhafi was toppled.

A Catch-22

“No one in Libya is happy,” complained Jihadeddin al-Salam, a young man sipping espresso with friends outside a cafe in downtown Tripoli. “Everyone has to be in a militia. If you aren’t in a militia, you can’t protect your home.”

One year on, the oil-rich country with a population of only about 6 million is still struggling to overcome the legacy of one of the most erratic leaders of modern times as well as the brutal, eight-month civil war that left the country awash in weapons, militias and very few viable institutions of the state.

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