* Militias claiming loyalty to retired general attacked
parliament on Sunday
* General Haftar rebelled against Gaddafi in the 1980s
* Violence could be attempt to form united front against
* Western governments fear chaos in Libya could spread to
By Patrick Markey and Ulf Laessing
ALGIERS/TRIPOLI, May 20 When a dispute erupted
over dissolving Libya's parliament last February, a former
general dressed in full army uniform made a surprise television
broadcast calling on the military to "rescue" the country.
Flanked by a Libyan flag and a large map, retired Major
General Khalifa Haftar demanded a caretaker government take over
from a parliament paralysed by rivalries after the 2011 war that
ended Muammar Gaddafi's rule.
Quickly, rumours of troop movements fed coup fears. But no
tanks rolled into the streets, and many dismissed Haftar as a
Libyans already knew the grey-haired ex-officer who first
rebelled against Gaddafi in the 1980s. Now he is back
centre-stage after groups of militias claiming loyalty to him
attacked parliament in Tripoli on Sunday and assaulted Benghazi
to clear out Islamist militants.
Two regular military units have already backed Haftar's
self-declared Libyan National Army, making him one more player
in an emerging confrontation between rival brigades of former
anti-Gaddafi rebels who are Libya's real powerbrokers.
With Libya's new army still in training, two loose
confederacies of ex-fighters are lined up with Islamist and
anti-Islamist political forces and locked in an uneasy balance
of power where neither is able to overcome the other.
Haftar's movement and the violence in Tripoli and Benghazi
may signal an attempt to draw up a broader anti-Islamist front
that risks a wider-scale battle over the North African OPEC
state still struggling to shape its fragile democracy.
"Politically we are in limbo until things become clearer.
Both in Benghazi and Tripoli, security is very fragile," one
Western diplomat said. "I question how coordinated it was
between Haftar and others, but they have common interests. It
may be a marriage of convenience."
On one side, the Zintanis, in the western mountains, and
their allied Qaaqaa and Sawaiq brigades in Tripoli, are fiercely
anti-Islamist and back the National Forces Alliance, a coalition
of nationalist parties led by an ex-Gaddafi official.
Lined up broadly against them are the Misratan brigades,
based in the port city of Misrata, who are Islamist-leaning and
support the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with
other Islamist brigades and their allies.
The potential for more widespread confrontation was apparent
on Sunday when gunmen with anti-aircraft cannons attacked
parliament, triggering skirmishes across Tripoli among regular
forces, and pro- and anti-Islamist factions.
It is not clear if Haftar forces were even involved in the
Tripoli clashes, though one of his allies, Brigadier-General
Saqer Al-Joroushi, claimed Haftar's troops worked with the
Qaaqaa and Sawaiq brigades.
The two groups did not confirm any role. But officials and
diplomats said Tripoli's violence may have been a Qaaqaa attempt
to thwart Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq, who got backing by the
Muslim Brotherhood and is seen by critics as pro-Islamist.
He had just submitted his cabinet names to the parliament on
Sunday when gunmen attacked. After the assault, it was not even
clear whether Maiteeq would be able to get lawmakers to hold a
session to approve his government.
"Tripoli cannot become a battleground for political
disputes," Tripoli local council said in a statement. "We hold
the local Qaaqaa brigade responsible for the violence."
ONE AMONG MANY
Since the NATO-backed war against Gaddafi, Western powers
have struggled to help a fragile Libyan government gain a secure
footing, with growing international concern as Libya's
instability threatens to spill across to its neighbours.
Algeria's government last week sent special forces into
Tripoli to evacuate its ambassador and closed down its embassy
after what sources said was an al Qaeda threat.
The United States has temporarily moved about 250 Marines
and a number of aircraft to Sicily from Spain as a precaution
due to concerns about unrest, bolstering the U.S. ability to
evacuate its citizens in any crisis.
"We're obviously watching the situation very closely as the
unrest continues to worsen," a U.S. defence official said on
condition of anonymity. "We're posturing as best we can; we're
watching as best we can."
Complicating Libya's security, thousands of militia fighters
have semi-official status on the government payroll and are
linked to the ministries of defence and interior in an attempt
bid to co-opt them into loyalty to the state.
How much support Haftar can gain in the country's fledgling
armed forces or, more importantly, among the network of rebels
is difficult to judge in a country where alliances run across
tribal, regional and political lines.
But he has a long pedigree as a rebel commander. A former
Gaddafi ally, he joined Libya's former leader in a 1969 coup
that bought the autocrat to power. But he later fell out with
Gaddafi over the country's war in Chad in 1980s.
According to a report on Haftar by U.S. think-tank The
Jamestown Foundation, he also had past backing from the U.S.
Central Intelligence Agency. He spent 20 years in the United
States before returning to lead rebels in 2011.
Since his February statement, diplomats said Haftar had
campaigned, mainly in eastern Libya, reaching out to tribes and
militias to drum up support for his position.
At least in Benghazi, the regular air force appeared to join
his troops with helicopters attacking Islamist bases there. An
air force unit in Tobruk on Monday pledged support and, more
significantly, a special forces brigade chief also backed him.
Support in the east is less surprising. His attacks in
Benghazi mostly targeted Islamists like Ansar al Sharia - blamed
for leading an assault on the U.S. consulate in the city in 2012
when ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans
died, and branded a terrorist organisation by Washington.
Many Benghazi residents and troops there are frustrated at
the lack of support to halt assassinations and bombings in the
city where militants often openly operate their checkpoints.
Some Haftar backers are even drawing comparisons to Egypt's
former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who removed the Muslim
Brotherhood from power and is now frontrunner in the country's
presidential elections next week.
"Haftar is probably positioning himself as a strongman. Lots
of Libyans are saying they need that," one diplomat said. "He is
saying all the right things."
INSTABILITY TO COME?
One key factor will the support of Ibrahim Jathran, the
former anti-Gaddafi rebel who has taken over oil ports since
last summer in an attempt to force Tripoli to give more federal
rights to self-declared eastern Cyrenica region.
He had agreed with Maiteeq's predecessor to steadily lift
his blockade of four key ports and help bring Libya's battered
oil shipments back to normal. But Jathran has since rejected the
new premier, suspended his deal and backed Haftar.
"The latest events are potentially a watershed; Haftar is
trying to put together a loose coalition of forces, including
the Zintanis and Jathran's federalists, to counter the power of
the Islamist camp," said Riccardo Fabiani at Eurasia Group.
"For the first time, there are potentially two blocs,
instead of the fragmentation that we have seen before and has
been the main reason why Libya has not descended into chaos."
But any attempt to bring together an anti-Islamist alliance
with overwhelming force will meet not only political resistance,
but also fierce opposition from Misrata and allied brigades, who
will react to any attempt by their Zintani rivals to make gains,
especially in Tripoli.
Late last year, most major militias moved out of their bases
in the capital after clashes killed dozens. The next step may be
an attempt to reposition themselves in Tripoli.
Misratans had made up the bulk of the so-called Libya
Shields force created by the parliament chief to help security
in Tripoli, where many residents blame unruly Bedouin elements
from Zintan for crime and kidnappings.
Other Islamist brigades are already making noises. The
Operations Room for Libya's Revolutionaries, accused of
kidnapping the prime minister last year, say rivals are trying
to reinstall a dictatorship in Libya.
So far the Misratan brigades have stayed out of the fray.
But parliament speaker, Nuri Abu Sahmain, who is also
military commander in chief, asked Misrata's Libya Shield forces
to move to Tripoli to protect government institutions, according
to a statement on an official army webpage.
"Now we have to see how the Misratans react," said another
diplomat in Tripoli. "We have been waiting for three years for
this to crystallise. It could get worse a lot quicker."
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami; Editing by Will