TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The suit says it all, even if Libya’s Islamist military chief is guarded in talking of his own ambitions as war gives way to politics after the killing of Muammar Gaddafi.
Sitting for a Reuters interview on Friday clad in a sharp blue suit and open-necked shirt, many Libyans might need a double-take to recognize Abdel Hakim Belhadj, now he has shed his trademark military fatigues and wants to assure his many critics that his Islamist agenda is inclusive and democratic.
Declining to be pinned down on his personal ambitions - beyond indicating he does not want an immediate role as defense minister - he insisted he bore no grudge against Western powers who he says colluded in his torture under Gaddafi, dismissed talk of links to al Qaeda and refused to be drawn on rivals’ accusations that he is a pawn in Qatari plans to control Libya.
“What was done to me by the American and British secret services ... was very unfortunate. I was tortured by the CIA and I was tortured by the Libyan secret service,” said Belhadj, who after fighting with the Afghan Taliban was captured and sent to Libya in 2004, where he was jailed until last year.
But he added: “I’m not looking for revenge. That isn’t my way.” He has lawyers, however, looking to follow his complaint.
“I’m not negative about these nations,” he said, offering a view of international tolerance in Koranic language: “God has created us as tribes and nations and has commanded us to mingle and will judge us according to our faiths. God created us different so that we can mingle and build on common interests.”
Belhadj, as Tripoli military commander for the National Transitional Council (NTC), grabbed global television attention in announcing the death of Gaddafi last month. His rise and that of other Islamists - and support for them from Qatar - has angered secular leaders who rallied against the old regime and generated anxiety among NATO powers who backed the rebellion.
The NTC’s U.S.-educated wartime premier Mahmoud Jibril, long at odds with the Islamists and now out of office, praised the military and media power of the gas-rich Gulf emirate -which owns Al Jazeera television - but warned darkly of Qatar “siding with a faction against the rest of the Libyan people.”
But Belhadj, who is close to the Qatar-based Libyan cleric Ali al-Sallabi, refused to be drawn on accusations, echoed by Western diplomats, that Qatar, a U.S. ally which led Arab backing for the NATO campaign, was seeking influence through him. “Many countries supported the revolution,” he said.
But while noting the important role played by Qatar, he insisted that its support was not limited to the Islamist cause. “Qatar played a political role, crowned by their early recognition of the NTC ... Qatar sent aid ... They also gave military support,” he said. But he stressed: “This support came to all the revolutionaries, to all Libyans.”
Rivals allege that Belhadj, who says he controls 25,000 of the tens of thousands of former rebels still under arms, has been seeking to be defense minister in the new transitional government being formed this month by Abdurrahim El-Keib.
But he saw no role for himself in a cabinet that is due to give way to an elected government in mid-2012. “In the transitional period, I don’t have a desire to be part of anything,” he said, declining to talk of his plans further out.
“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.”
Echoing the sentiments of most of Libya’s politicians and of diplomats, he said it was a priority to organize national security forces, taking into account the need to bring the rebels’ weaponry under control, ensure fair treatment for those who fought and bring those with the desire and the competence to be part of the army or other forces into a formal structure.
In common with Islamists who have done well from the Arab Spring revolts in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, those in Libya reject suggestions they would stifle democracy or the rights of women and minorities by introducing Islamic law, as the NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil promised last month.
“There is nothing to fear, there is no extremism in Libya,” Belhadj said. “Libyans are Muslims, they are moderate, their Islam is moderate ... There is no al Qaeda in Libya and there is no connection between the revolutionaries and al Qaeda.
“I have no relationship with al Qaeda,” he added, addressing questions about his time with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion.
He dismissed the recent appearance of a black Islamic flag, of a kind sometimes associated with al Qaeda, in eastern Libya as an “expression of an individual,” and also criticized the smashing of several tombs at mosques by groups who view ornate gravesites as an offence against austere Muslim traditions.
“Such actions only serve to weaken the social fabric,” he said, noting that leading clerics had condemned the incidents.
His brand of Islamism would sit well with democracy, he said, noting the success of Muslim Turkey in providing for its people: “We hope for a democratic environment and part of that is having different points of view.”
Belhadj did not confirm his involvement with a project, highlighted by Sallabi in Qatar this week, to establish a new Islamist party to contest elections, though an aide described the plan as in the very early stages. The long-established, Egyptian-founded Muslim Brotherhood also has members in Libya.
“We aspire to build a modern nation, a nation of law that will have justice, equality and freedom for all. These are the standards that we missed under Gaddafi’s rule,” Belhadj said, echoing a much expressed hope that the solidarity shown by many Libyans against Gaddafi can provide a bulwark against division:
“All Libyans marched together. No one tried to rush past anyone to raise their own banner or to belittle another banner, and this is one of the characteristics of this revolution.”
Some fear that may be a vain hope, as a multitude of groups and factions vie for position in Keib’s new government and for a share of Libya’s potential oil wealth. The presence of thousands of armed men on the streets has raised concerns of an Iraq-style breakdown in order, but so far violence is limited.
Belhadj played down occasional incidents and armed confrontations in the capital and denied talk that one of these had been an attempt to assassinate him last week.
“The security situation is fine,” he said, sitting back comfortably in his civilian clothes at a luxury Tripoli hotel - which is guarded by his uniformed supporters. “There are a lot of rumours about assassination attempts but they are baseless.”
Writing by Alastair Macdonald