Rival Libyan rebel commanders beat chests

TRIPOLI Fri Nov 18, 2011 11:25am EST

1 of 2. Anti-Gaddafi fighters gesture to the crowds in front of a giant Kingdom of Libya flag during celebrations for the liberation of Libya in Quiche, Benghazi October 23, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya's incoming prime minister Abdelrahim al-Keib is to announce his cabinet in coming days and former rebel factions who fought to oust Muammar Gaddafi are jostling to influence who will get the top posts in the new defense forces.

Although few have publicly announced they want the defense minister and army chief of staff positions, shows of chest-beating by commanders and their entourages are a clear sign that factions want to sway the new prime minister.

At a horse-racing track near the seafront in Tripoli, a parade of ragtag fighters marched past a VIP delegation with Tripoli's Islamist military commander for the National Transitional Council (NTC), Abdel Hakim Belhadj, sitting at the front.

"We must build a national army ... to rebuild the country. We have to build the country again," Belhadj told the crowd of fighters, women and children who had been ferried into the area to wave flags and celebrate the liberation of Libya.

A fighter jet swooped by and parachutists landed in front of the podium to roars of applause.

"We hope that Keib can form a strong government," Belhadj said in a speech, emphasizing the need for former rebels to have a place in the new government.

The NTC has endorsed Belhadj as the official military commander in Tripoli and justice minister Mohammed al-Allagi sat next to him throughout the parade.

Although stating that he does not want an immediate role as defense minister, Belhadj - who says he controls 25,000 fighters - might be eyeing a political position in the future.

"I want to serve my nation with all the power and ability I can offer, but to choose where and how, it is too early to talk about this now," he told Reuters in an interview last week.

RIVAL MESSAGE

On the same day as Belhadj's victory march, fighters loyal to Abdullah Naker, a competing Tripoli-based commander and head of the Tripoli Revolutionary Council, spent the evening going through drafts of a press release that was a public refusal to acknowledge Belhadj as the principal voice of Libya's fighters.

Men in military fatigues scurried around a 20-foot table, talking excitedly about their demands from Keib's government.

"Injured fighters must be looked after," one commander shouted over the buzz of discussion in the business center of a 5-star hotel. "The army chief of staff position must be filled by someone who saw combat during the revolution."

Naker's men say Belhadj did not fight on the front lines during the war but suddenly appeared in the media spotlight when Tripoli fell to the revolutionary forces in late August.

Naker claims he has up to 20,000 fighters and rejects a role for Belhadj in the new government, and has warned that his men could overthrow the incoming government if it fails to meet their demands for representation.

International actors hope that the militias will be disbanded and incorporated into a national army but many groups, including Naker's, have a wait-and-see approach to disarming.

Some observers dismiss Naker's threat as posturing, but it represents how Keib, a U.S.-trained engineering professor, will have to juggle the demands of disparate factions who say they feel entitled to have a say over how the military will be run.

CONTENDERS

The NTC's first military commander, Abdel Fattah Younes, was assassinated in July in what some speculate was an internal rebel feud, highlighting the sensitivity of top military roles.

This week, a gathering of officers in the eastern city of al-Baida publicly nominated Gaddafi-defector Major General Khalifa Heftah as chief of staff of the national army, formally submitting his application to the NTC.

Naker told reporters on Thursday the nomination of Heftah was premature and demanded that nominations be postponed until after the interim government is formed.

"We were not consulted about the nomination of a chief of staff. We are competent, but they did not give us the chance to put forward our own candidates," Naker said late on Thursday.

Fawzi Abu Katif, the current Islamist deputy defense minister who led troops in fighting in the east, is often mentioned as someone who might take the minister of defense position.

Members of Belhadj's brigades are already referring to themselves the national army even though an army is yet to be formed and most former rebel factions have not disbanded or handed over their weapons, a worrying sign that political power is still in the hands of the militias.

(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Andrew Roche)

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