- - Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sirte, LIBYA — From the second floor of a school, Abdallah Karim, 20, gazes at downtown Sirte, at buildings blown apart, streets littered with broken glass and rubble — his hometown reduced to a field of ruins.

Still, he says, he enjoys the view.

“I really don’t care about the destruction of my city. Look, over there, my house was there,” said Mr. Karim, a fighter from the Defense Misrata brigade, pointing to a destroyed building through the large window. “I don’t care. I just want the Islamic State men to be dead.”

The last holdouts of the jihadi group are clinging to a square half-mile area of this strategic coastal city, the Islamic State group’s “capital” in Libya and once its most formidable outpost outside of its base in Syria and Iraq. Misrata fighters, part of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord Forces, continue to make advances against the surrounded group.

Although the GNA forces expect to capture Sirte within the next month, the Misrata fighters say they are bracing for a wider war over who will rule Libya.

U.N. officials and private analysts anticipate that clash soon and are not sure Libya, as a functioning state, can survive it.

“Every day is a step further in the de facto partition of the country,” said Mattia Toaldo, a Libya analyst for the European Council on Foreign Relations, based in the United Kingdom.

Speaking Tuesday in Geneva, Martin Kobler, the U.N. special envoy to the Libyan crisis, issued a stark warning that the country is at risk of descending once again into chaos.

“Unfortunately, we are now facing a political impasse ,” Mr. Kobler told a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council. “The risks of increased tensions in the capital should not be underestimated.”

The Islamic State’s hold on Sirte, the hometown of longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and a key oil exporting center, began to loosen after the U.S. and Britain stepped up support last month in the four-month drive to oust the militant group. Each country sent advisers to provide intelligence.

The Obama administration has authorized airstrikes on the city since August. One strike destroyed the Ouagadougou Conference Center, a showcase of the Gadhafi regime that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, used as its local headquarters.

But the retreat of the Islamic State fighters has exposed other deep fissures in Libya, with the government in Tripoli facing a serious challenge to its legitimacy.

By the beginning of September, the Misrata fighters thought they had won and soon would be able to lay down their arms. But then came Gen. Khalifa Haftar and his “Libyan National Army.”

On Sept. 11, the former Gadhafi general and his forces took control of the main refineries of the coastal region known as the Oil Crescent — including the oil terminals and ports of Ras Lanuf, As-Sidra, Brega and Zueitina — in the name of the rival government based in the eastern Libyan city of Bayda.

During the takeover, the pro-GNA Petroleum Facilities Guards, led by Ibrahim Jedran, disarmed on orders from the eastern tribal leaders. These chiefs had been meeting secretly with Gen. Haftar and the eastern government to mobilize Operation Sudden Lightning to take control of facilities in the oil-producing area. The result: a standoff between Gen. Haftar and the forces of the GNA, whose authority is rejected by the country’s eastern tribes.

Fears of a new offensive

Observers fear GNA forces will go on the offensive to recapture the terminals.

The facilities give Gen. Haftar a big advantage because he now controls the oil revenue from them. The Oil Crescent holds 60 percent of Libya’s oil resources.

“Given the tensions that Haftar’s move has provoked, a military attempt on the terminals is certainly possible,” wrote Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst on Libya for the Crisis Group, a think tank based in Brussels.

Ms. Gazzini said crude in the Gulf of Sirte accounts for about 80 percent of Libya’s total oil exports, by far the country’s top source of revenue. “From a political and military point of view, these developments are a huge setback to the authority of the U.N.-backed fledgling government in Tripoli,” she said.

Gen. Haftar has nominated military officials — who don’t answer to the unity government — instead of civil officials to run cities such as Benghazi, Ajdabyia and Shahat, further weakening the GNA’s authority.

The general, who once served under Gadhafi, sounded defiant in written responses to questions posed Wednesday by The Associated Press. He rejected the authority of the unity government in Tripoli, attacked Mr. Kobler, the U.N. envoy, for “meddling” in the country’s affairs and said Libya would be better served by a leader with “high-level military experience.” He said much of Libya’s turmoil was the result of armed gangs and Islamist militias dominating the government in the country’s western half.

GNA forces fear that Gen. Haftar will ride the momentum of his capture of the oil region to push farther to the west.

“Now, Haftar’s planes are close enough to conduct airstrikes on our men in Sirte,” said Ibrahim Beit el-Mal, head of the military council of Misrata, echoing other security officials who say Misrata is also vulnerable.

Security officials also believe the general wants to strike now while the Misrata fighters are worn from battling in Sirte.

“We expect a bigger war against Haftar soon,” said Adel Glidam, a Misrata Red Crescent volunteer whose father died fighting in Sirte. “He wants to fight because he knows we are physically weak and morale is low because of the war in Sirte.”

Haftar forces are in Harawa region, less than 45 miles from GNA forces.

For the first time since the Libyan civil war in 2011, when the death of Gadhafi unleashed tribal rivalry and conflict, there is no buffer between the factions. In the past, it was Mr. Jedran’s Petroleum Facilities Guards and then the Islamic State that occupied the territory between the feuding Libyan factions.

A political agreement seems highly unlikely, analysts say. To GNA supporters — and especially Misrata fighters — Gen. Haftar represents a return to the bad old Gadhafi days, and his rise to any official position in the country is a red line.

“What Haftar did [seizing the oil facilities] shows that he has no respect for Libya and that he wants to be a dictator,” said Ali Abu Sitta, a moderate member of Misrata’s municipal council.

Fayez Sirraj, prime minister in the Tripoli unity government, said this week that political reconciliation is vital to preventing even more bloodshed after the looming defeat of the Islamic State. He said GNA officials were open to negotiations.

“As a Presidential Council, we are open to all political factions. I have no reservations. Anything that helps solve the Libyan crisis and that can open bottlenecks, we are ready to meet anyone,” Mr. Sirraj told the Reuters news agency.

He struck a conciliatory tone about the seizure of oil facilities but added, “Whoever protects the oil must be under the umbrella of the Presidential Council.”

On the other hand, Gen. Haftar’s followers contend that he is the only Libyan truly fighting Islamists in the country. Islamic State fighters may be on the run, but other jihadi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood are deeply entrenched in GNA-controlled areas. The Brotherhood’s Abdussalam Kajman is a deputy leader of the Presidential Council, or Cabinet, led by GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

“We don’t like the GNA because it is controlled by the Islamists who destroyed Libya in 2011 during the revolution,” said Ali al-Wershefani, a Petroleum Facilities Guards member who joined Gen. Haftar’s forces. “Nowadays, I can say 75 percent or more of Libyans desire Gadhafi to come back again, and therefore they support Haftar today.”

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