TRIPOLI (Reuters) - On a dusty parade ground outside Tripoli, young recruits march and bark out slogans for the new Libyan army that Western powers hope can turn the tide on militias threatening to engulf the North African country in anarchy.
Their boots are new and their fatigues pressed, but Libya’s army recruits will need more than drills to take on the hardened militiamen, Islamist fighters and political rivalries testing their OPEC nation’s stability.
Two years after NATO missiles helped rebels drive out Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is under siege from former rebel fighters who now flex their military muscle to make demands on the state, seize oilfields and squabble over post-war spoils.
With Libya’s army still in the making, Western powers are keen to halt chaos in the key European oil supplier and stop illicit arms spilling across North Africa.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan last month stood by in London as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Britain’s William Hague pledged support. Just weeks earlier, Zeidan himself was briefly abducted from a Tripoli hotel by militiamen.
Everyone agrees Libya needs help. But after four decades of Gaddafi rule, Libya’s stuttering decision-making, fragile leadership and chronic disorganization hamper cooperation.
Infighting between broadly liberal and Islamist camps in the assembly, and their network of militia allies, muddies Western efforts to stabilize a country where NATO’s intervention was seen as a model two years ago.
“What happens next depends on outside pressure. If we don’t make a compromise, we’ll lose Libya,” said Tofiq al-Shahibi, a leader with the National Forces Alliance party. “If we think we can build our country without outside help, we will fail.”
Libya’s new army is already being tested. The worst clashes in Tripoli since 2011 killed more than 40 people last month, forcing quasi-legal militias to withdraw from the capital and leave the nascent army to patrol for now.
In Benghazi, where Islamist militants assaulted the U.S. consulate last year killing four Americans including the ambassador, Libya’s special forces are now taking on the same hardline group Washington blames for the September 2012 attack.
Turkey, Italy, and Britain are leading the way with promises to train around 8,000 troops and police in skills from infantry basics to forensics. Other recruits are graduating from programs in Jordan.
But Western military support is in its infancy. The army struggles even to pin down how many troops it has, including new recruits, ex-Gaddafi soldiers and militiamen drafted into the ranks.
As in other countries where Arab Spring revolts ousted autocrats, Libya’s messy path from Gaddafi’s rule is complicating Western efforts.
Parliament is deadlocked between the mainly liberal National Forces Alliance, often linked to militia fighters from the mountain redoubt of Zintan, and the Justice and Construction party or JCP, a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, frequently associated with fighters from coastal Misrata and Tripoli.
Disputes run deep through the interior and defense ministries, where former rebels, including hardline Islamists, have been reintegrated and put on the state payroll in an attempt to control their fighters.
“We can do capacity building and training and advice, but ultimately if the Libyans don’t sort out the basic political problem then it is all on the margins,” one Western diplomat said. “They need to come to some national consensus about what kind of country they want.”
Former fighters have plagued Libya’s central government since the fall of Tripoli in August 2011 when rebels from rival cities into the capital and entrenched themselves in fiefdoms.
This year former rebel commanders in the east and tribes in the west have taken over gas pipelines, ports and oilfields, cutting off crude shipments to demand ethnic or regional rights.
Balanced against those militia, officials say the army has 5,000 troops in training overseas and 10,000 in Libya. At least 3,000 were in Tripoli after the militia withdrawal last month and special forces units are in Benghazi, one diplomat said.
Italy and Turkey are training police. Britain will start early next year giving training to 2,000 infantry troops with instruction mostly given overseas.
Washington is still considering cooperation proposals, including a plan for groups of Libyan soldiers to rotate though Bulgaria for training.
Adm. William McRaven, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, has said the U.S. military was working to train 5,000 to 7,000 Libyans. He acknowledged a risk that some recruits tied to militias may not have “clean records.”
“We all recognize the circumstances that are here. This is a new state, this is a developing state, that carries some baggage with it,” U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones told reporters this week. “I am very optimistic.”
So much of the training takes place overseas because few of Libya’s partners are willing to commit advisors on the ground.
Turkey trained 800 police cadets who graduated in February, but so far Libya has been unable to send a second batch because of state “decision-making” problems, one official said.
“We set up training. On day one, no one shows up. The second day, they promise us eight recruits, and only two show up. It’s frustrating,” another diplomat said.
Lack of modern equipment, basic skill levels and limited army facilities make training difficult; Gaddafi-era rivalries between departments mean coordination is often non-existent.
Some Libyan forces start from scratch. Coast guards, for example, often went out without life-jackets before training started and borrowed fishing vessels to make voyages to sea.
“They are trying to reform a non-system, they are trying to reform what didn’t operate and make it into a rational system at break-neck speed,” said Peter Rundell, deputy head of an EU mission that trains border guards and customs workers.
Increasing Western aid could not come too soon for Zeidan’s fragile government. The Libyan premier may now see a chance to capitalize on growing popular discontent with the militias to speed up recruitment and regain some control of the capital.
Tripoli’s residents are frustrated. Gunmen armed with anti-aircraft cannons on trucks earlier this year besieged ministries to force political demands on the assembly and have fought turf wars in the capital and Benghazi.
One Tripoli battle at the start of November was sparked by a personal feud after one militia briefly arrested a leader from a rival group for driving an unlicensed car. He was freed, but returned with his militiamen and a gun battle broke out.
Armed protests at oil ports and production facilities have cut the country’s oil exports to 10 percent of the normal 1.4 million barrels per day output and forced the government to import fuel and cut back on electricity in the capital.
November’s clashes in Tripoli were sparked when angry residents marched on the base of a militia from Misrata to demand they leave the capital. Gunmen opened fire with anti-aircraft guns fastened to a truck.
Faced with popular anger, the Misratans and rival Zintani brigades pulled out of their bases, where army patrols and police are now stationed. Some fighters agreed to join the regular army; others left with their heavy weaponry.
“Each one wants to keep their weapons, not because of the government, but because they are aware the others didn’t hand theirs over yet. To be on the safe side,” said Saleh Gaouda, a lawmaker allied to Libya’s Islamists.
At the 2nd Brigade army camp outside Tripoli, recruits are keen to sign up, dumping their bags, blankets and baseball caps on the parade ground before drill officers in aviator glasses run them through their first day of training.
Officers complain of a lack of space at the camp, where recruits get three months of basic training in army discipline and fitness before they get near any weapons. But they sense a shift in the military’s fortune.
“We are getting more and more everyday,” base commander, Brigadier Faituri Gabil said. “Everything needs time, we are just starting and it is difficult. We have lots of militias and lots of different ideas, now the army is winning.”
Additional reporting by Ghaith Shennib; Editing by Peter Graff