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The government relies on some militias to provide security because the army and police are weak. But the militias also flout the law with impunity.

In October, militias on the government payroll briefly abducted Mr. Zeidan from his Tripoli hotel room. Security and military officials, as well as political activists, have been assassinated in Benghazi this year.

Unlike other Libyan cities, the capital Tripoli is guarded by a hodgepodge of militias from across the country. Rival factions are frequently involved in gunbattles and kidnappings.

On Nov. 15, gunmen from the western city of Misrata fired on protesters in Tripoli who were demanding the militias leave the city. At least 47 people were killed and more than 500 wounded.

Washington alarmed

In Washington, the massacre of protesters set off alarm bells.

“It is clear that there has been too much sacrifice for Libya to go backwards,” said a State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We definitely recognize the challenges that remain and must be addressed and overcome.”

Citing a lack of a cohesive Middle East strategy, Republicans in Congress have long criticized the Obama administration about Libya — first for the president’s “lead from behind” tactics in dealing with Gadhafi’s aggression against Libyans during the civil war and later for limited U.S. involvement in the country’s struggles in transitioning to democracry.

In the interim, weapons given to rebels to fight the dictator have found their way into the hands of Islamic insurgents who have made significant inroads in the fractious North African nation.

One area of increased militant activity: Benghazi. The Obama administration has been accused of ignoring diplomats’ pleas for more security before last year’s attacks and of not providing a robust, timely rescue of U.S. personnel during the assault.

The Libyan government’s problems have been exacerbated by an oil dispute that started as labor unrest over corruption and has been exploited by militias. Libya’s economy, solely dependent on the oil sector, has suffered as oil production has dropped to 10 percent of the country’s capacity.

Many Libyans and analysts say the government has done a poor job of reining in the militias and integrating them into the security services.

“We are looking at a deterioration in Libya’s security situation as well as the grasp of formal authorities over the country,” said Hanan Salah, a Tripoli-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.

In Tripoli, the security situation started to worsen in May when militias laid siege to the Libyan parliament and some government ministries. The gunmen demanded that lawmakers pass legislation that barred Gadhafi-era officials from serving in the new government. Lawmakers approved the bill, setting a troubling precedent.

“This was the beginning of the end, when it became normal to use force to push through an agenda,” said Ms. Salah.

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