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Libyans disillusioned a year after toppling Gadhafi

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TRIPOLI — The protesters converged on the conference center housing Libya's newly elected congress, trying to force their way in past startled guards.

Mostly young and half of them women in headscarves, they demanded an end to the siege of the town of Bani Walid, where the government was attacking holdouts from Moammar Gadhafi's former regime.

Police rushed to the scene; but in Libya, the police are actually militias -- in this case from the Tripoli neighborhood of Souq al-Jumaa that last year lost several men in a battle with Bani Walid residents.

Instead trying to control the crowd, the "police" dressed in T-shirts and pants of a military uniform exchanged threats with protesters and then mounted a rival demonstration of their own.

Soon they were firing their assault rifles in the air to intimidate the protesters.

As tensions soared, a dozen pickup trucks with mounted anti-aircraft guns and carrying soldiers in newly pressed camouflage uniforms pulled up to parliament, swiveled their guns forward and fired in the air as an apparent crowd-control method.

The deafening noise of a dozen heavy-caliber machine guns sent demonstrators running and filled the upscale neighborhood with the sounds of battle. Blocks away, shocked bystanders wondered if one year after the uprising ended, Libya had gone back to war.

Disappointed and angry

Libyans today are growing disappointed, disillusioned and increasingly angry at their government.

They complain that their leaders have not acted forcefully to address the most pressing problems, particularly the free rein of the country's many militias.

"It's not going very well partly because we have a minister of defense and minister of interior who were very incompetent and weak. They gave into the militias," said Guma Gamaty, a politician and outspoken critic of the militias.

"The whole process of rebuilding the army and the police has not progressed much at all in the last 10 months. We lost a lot of vital time."

Last year's fight that ended in Gadhafi's ouster and death after 42 years in power was largely carried out by regional militias that amassed weapons. However, long after the civil war ended, the militias continue to serve under their own leaders and wield significant power even though they have nominally come under the control of the state's military and police forces.

The lack of control by the government over the militias it relies on was brought home in the starkest terms Sept. 11, the day of attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, the eastern city where last year's uprising against Gadhafi began.

The Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah, one of the biggest militias in Benghazi, is suspected in the assault that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

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.

Despite widely hailed elections in the summer, the new General National Congress has been widely condemned as dysfunctional, engaged in shifting alliances and unable to form a new government.

Many Libyans complain that little has changed in the past year; and, amid the instability, everyone is holding on to their guns.

"We can't really discuss differences of opinions when we have weapons because, in the end, everyone here has a gun, and when they get mad, they might go for their weapons," said Saleh Sanoussi, a political analyst at Benghazi University. "Freedom with weapons results in chaos."

"It is a Catch-22," he said of the militias dilemma. "Without them, there is a danger to security. With them, it is impossible to build an army."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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