- - Thursday, August 11, 2016

TRIPOLI, Libya — Even as airstrikes authorized by President Obama have enabled Libya’s embattled unity government to seize the Islamic State’s critical stronghold here, a struggle between the feuding political and religious factions is putting those battlefield successes in doubt.

Discord between Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, army commander Khalifa Hafter and Sadiq Al-Ghariani, the country’s top Muslim cleric, threatens to overshadow the military success against Islamic State in Sirte, the coastal city that just months ago was the terrorist group’s biggest outpost beyond its base in Syria and Iraq.

Forces loyal to the government in Tripoli on Wednesday dislodged Islamic State fighters from a university campus in Sirte, a complex built by former tyrant Moammar Gadhafi in his hometown. The Islamic State had ruled the Mediterranean city for nearly two years.

“The fight is intense; we’ve lost 14 martyrs,” said spokesman Reda Issa after National Accord troops extended their control from Sirte’s Ouagadougou Conference Center to the city’s southeast with support from United States drones and fighter jets. “We’ve also moved the enemy out of the Ibn Sina hospital.”

Sirte Mayor Mokhtar Khalifa told The Associated Press that the city’s southern and western sections are under control of the Tripoli government. “Sirte is 70 percent free — it will soon be completely free,” Mr. Khalifa said.

But the sensitive nature of the U.S. aid in the fight has only exacerbated tensions within Libya, with Mr. Sarraj denying there was any plan to expand the U.S. and Western military presence on the ground. On Aug. 1, Mr. Sarraj delivered a televised speech preparing Libyans for American air raids, acknowledging his government requested direct U.S. air support to dislodge Islamic State fighters from Sirte.

“There will be no foreign intervention without the authorization of this government,” he said. “This decision is an activation of Libya’s role in both Islamic and international alliances to fight terrorism.”

Photographs posted on social media of the operation in Sirte showed Libyan fighters in mismatched uniforms flashing the “V” sign for victory from atop a tank, The Associated Press reported Thursday. The fighters took down the black Islamic State banners from atop the city’s massive convention center, replacing it with the Libyan tricolor flag.

The Government of National Accord has dubbed its Sirte campaign Operation Strong Foundation. But the campaign threatens to undermine the country’s new leadership.

After the conquest of Sirte, Mr. al-Ghariani, who has been Libya’s grand mufti since 2012, expressed his disapproval of the idea of American aid in the fight against Islamic State. Through Wednesday, U.S. fighter jets and drones had carried out nearly 30 strikes in Sirte in support of the Libyan government offensive, according to the Pentagon’s U.S. Africa Command.

“The issue is crystal-clear now,” he told the Tripoli-based Islamist TV station Tanasuh. “Libyans must unite to fight the foreign attack, and U.S. airstrikes are unacceptable.”

Political griping

Mr. al-Ghariani’s opposition to the National Accord Government’s request for air cover is a predictable stance for an Islamist leader who wants to distance himself from infidels. But political griping from secular parliamentarians in eastern Libya has also sprung up.

“The airstrikes are illegal and unconstitutional,” said Ali Tekbali, a lawmaker in the eastern city of Tobruk, who said the prime minister should have sought the advice of the legislature before requesting American aid. “Striking terrorism is required, but must be done in consultation with the House of Representatives.”

Mr. Tekbali is aligned with Gen. Hafter, who, before being named army commander, was head of rival military forces in eastern Libya during the post-Gadhafi struggle for power. With the National Accord government struggling to establish control beyond its base in Tripoli, Gen. Hafter and his allies are angry that they were frozen out of the operation to oust the Islamic State from Sirte. The Government of National Accord has also criticized France for putting its special forces at Gen. Hafter’s disposal without consulting Prime Minister Sarraj.

In December the United Nations struck a deal with Libya’s rival factions to create the unity government led by Mr. Sarraj. He still needs a crucial vote of confidence from the internationally recognized parliament, based in eastern Libya. The security and power vacuum encouraged both human trafficking and the Islamic extremists to establish a permanent presence in Libya, especially along its Mediterranean coastline.

Boosting the general’s bargaining leverage, French President Francois Hollande and Egyptian President Abel Fatah el-Sissi see him as an indispensable figure in creating a strong secular state in Libya. In July, Paris acknowledged its assistance to Gen. Hafter after three of its soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash during an intelligence-gathering operation.

On Tuesday, during talks in Cairo, National Accord Vice President Ahmed Maetig and top Egyptian officials failed to reach a formula to bring Gen. Hafter into the equation.

“Egypt will continue to pursue diplomacy in order to reach solutions that suit all Libyan parties to preserve the unity of the state in order to fight terrorism,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry after inconclusive talks Tuesday with Mr. Maetig.

The contradictions over which countries can assist Libya in its struggle against Islamic State have jeopardized the credibility of the National Accord Government, said Ibrahim Sahad, a former intelligence officer who founded the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, an opposition group that helped unseat Gadhafi.

“Regional and international powers are proceeding according to their own interests,” Mr. Sahad said. “These forces sponsor the continuation of tribal and regional differences, but at this point I think it is fair to say that Hafter and the mufti are the main obstacles to unity.”

Jacob Wirtschafter reported from Cairo.

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