Libya Tries to Build Army That Can March Straight and Defang Militias

November 22, 2011

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TRIPOLI, Libya — The marching can hardly be called crisp as the new Libyan National Army takes form in daily drills at an abandoned air force base here.

The soldiers do not yet march in step or even keep their formations straight. Some answer their cellphones when they should be taking orders. Some smoke in the middle of exercises. Others push and shove as personal disputes break out over one thing or another.

“You are not going to see a good, really good military,” Gen. Abdul Majid Fakih, an instructor at the military academy under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi who later defected, said as he supervised the training. “We are just beginning to build.”

Libya has never had a truly professional national army — a cornerstone in the building of a modern state — one that was not the personal tool of a king or dictator and purposely kept weak and divided to avert coups. And the effort at building one by the struggling new interim government may be its most difficult and important task.

Only a respected army will be able to persuade or force the various competing and heavily armed militias around the country to disarm and join together under a unified leadership. The challenge was underscored over the weekend when a militia from the town of Zintan captured Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, Colonel Qaddafi’s son and onetime heir apparent, without any help from the army, and then refused to turn him over to the central government.

The army is trying to build respect by holding parades around the country, complete with parachute jumps and fly-bys by Soviet-era MIG fighter jets and Mi-8 helicopters. But even the officers of the new force say they face challenges in building national veneration around the military, as well as in breaking old habits of officer cronyism and allegiance to one strongman or another.

The new army, which numbers a few thousand and includes many soldiers who deserted Colonel Qaddafi’s military, needs barracks, uniforms, vehicles, boots, radios, even flashlights, officers say. Rather than having a central unified command, it is being formed by distinct committees in different cities, following the model of the diverse bunch of militias that fought the war against the dictatorship. And perhaps most troubling, the militias across the country are already refusing to take its orders.

In its first mission just over a week ago, the army sent 100 troops to Al Maya, a village just west of the capital, to separate two fighting militias and retake an old army base that is now a heap of bombed-out buildings and rusting tanks. Its success at negotiating a tentative settlement between the militias after four days of fighting that left at least 13 dead was lauded as a model for the building of a new army that can serve as a unifying force.

But one of the militias, from Zawiyah, has already broken its promise to keep its weapons at home, setting up a roadblock on the main road a couple of miles west of the army base as a sign of resistance. Armed with heavy machine guns atop pickup trucks, the militiamen say they are going nowhere. Meanwhile the army troops are staying at the base, putting a fresh coat of white paint on the outer walls and beginning to clean up the grounds.

“We can’t tell them to surrender their guns,” said Capt. Hakim el-Agouri, the local army commander in Al Maya. He shrugged. “There are people out there who won’t give up their weapons, and if that is the case, there won’t be stability in Libya.”

Diederik Vandewalle, an expert on Libya at Dartmouth College, said it would be difficult for the new army to fulfill “the first requirement of any modern state — to have a monopoly on violence.” He added, “One of the elements you need to instill in your soldiers is a sense of national identity, and that identity has to be on a national level. But the militias have an identity tied to their group or town.”

The army has already become one of several armed forces vying for power, both military and political. Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the army’s leader in Tripoli, told Prime Minister Abdel Rahim el-Keeb in a speech last week that he expected him to keep his promise to include former rebels in cabinet posts as Mr. Keeb was forming his government.

In an interview, Mr. Belhaj, an Islamist who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan but is now critical of Al Qaeda, said the army would give the militia fighters “a choice to join the Ministry of Defense or police, or give up their weapons and return to civilian life.”

He said he was confident the army could accomplish that mission within a couple of months.

“We can’t have an army run by personal agendas,” he added. “The army we need has to be professional and loyal,” with its primary mission being defense of the borders from threats posed by instability in nearby Chad, Mali and Sudan, as well as Qaeda infiltration from Algeria.

Army leaders said their force was mostly training now, but also protecting government buildings and hunting down small groups of former Qaddafi supporters who had not yet surrendered.

They said they planned to build the army methodically. First, committees are being formed in cities around the country to interview militia fighters and decide who should be in the army, who should be in the police, and who is not qualified for either. People with special experience or abilities, like computer skills, will be assigned special tasks.

Militia members without formal military experience outside the rebellion need to be taught proper tactics, and old members of the military need to be retrained, officers said.

“A lot needs to be changed,” said General Fakih, the instructor. “Before the army trained terrorists. That’s over. We need to change the way soldiers treat people, and how officers treat soldiers.”

At the same time, officers say they are preparing to persuade the various militias to give up their heavy machine guns, antiaircraft weapons and rocket launchers, which they say are no longer needed at road checkpoints.

Civilian leaders say they want the militias totally disarmed within the month, but officers say that cannot be done for several more months. General Fakih said the army was preparing “many plans” to disarm the militias if they did not surrender their arms voluntarily, but he would not specify what they were.

Those plans may well be needed.

Down the road from the army base at Al Maya, Ali Dow Mohammed, a Zawiyah militia commander in charge of a heavily fortified checkpoint, said his forces would drop their weapons only when there was a new government, “and there is no government.”

“The Zawiyah council will decide what we do with our arms,” Mr. Mohammed added. “We are here to keep the peace.”

Source New York Times

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