- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2016

The prime minister of Libya’s new government says the fractured nation’s own military forces will lead the campaign to defeat the Islamic State’s main Libyan affiliate.

The assertion Friday by Prime Minister Fayez Seraj came amid reports that Libyan militias working in coordination with the newly formed Government of National Accord in Tripoli had launched an assault on territory held by the Islamic State.

The Syria- and Iraq-headquartered terrorist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, has gained a stronghold over the past year in the Libyan city of Sirte on Mediterranean coast, backing an affiliate there known as the Libyan Province.

But a top Libyan military commander loyal to the U.N.-brokered government in Tripoli said Thursday night that his own forces — mainly militias from the western city of Misrata — had pushed into the Islamic State territory and begun fighting extremists on the streets of Sirte.

Col. Mohammed al-Ghasri said the advance was being made under the cover of heavy airstrikes, according to The Associated Press, although it was not clear who was carrying out the strikes.

A Pentagon official who spoke Friday with The Washington Times on condition of anonymity denied any American warplanes were involved.

The official said U.S. special operations forces on the ground near the Libyan cities of Misurata and Benghazi are tasked with gathering intelligence on local militias and not involved with coordinating air support for Libyan fighters.

The U.S. military has conducted a limited number of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya during recent months. But the Obama administration has not explicitly announced a new campaign in Sirte.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest spoke broadly about the matter with reporters on May 16, saying that U.S. forces had “already taken military strikes against Islamic State targets in Libya and when necessary, to take additional strikes to protect the American people, we won’t hesitate to do so.”

His remarks came amid speculation about the potential for an expanded U.S. campaign in Libya.

The Pentagon had been running a discrete program to train and equip moderate rebel forces in the nation, but shuttered the effort late last year after only 180 rebels completed the training.

With that as a backdrop, a small number of U.S. special operations teams have been spotted on the ground in northeast and western Libya for the better part of a year, conducting patrols and advising local militias in the fight against the Islamic State.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that the creation of a new U.S.-led training mission in Libya could be imminent.

But the new Libyan government’s top diplomat in Washington has urged caution over U.S. plans to arm and train the nation’s militias. “We have to be cautious. We cannot rush back into this,” Wafa Bugaighis, charge d’affaires at the Embassy of Libya, said during a panel discussion in Washington in mid-May.

Ms. Bugaighis said Libya had the basic building blocks of a viable, unified military force before U.S.-backed rebels ousted and eventually killed then-dictator Moammar Gadhafi in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring.

Mr. Seraj seemed eager to put a fine point on her comments in his own remarks Friday, asserting that “we are sure that the battle and the eradication of the Islamic State will be carried out by Libyans.”

No one will be excluded from a national army as long as they submitted to central political authority, Mr. Seraj told Reuters in his first interview with international media since arriving in Tripoli in late March.

He also said Libya should retain sovereign control over tackling the crisis of illegal migrants crossing from Libya to Italy in creaky old boats that have frequently sunk, killing thousands of people.

Carlo Muñoz contributed to this report.

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