TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Rigged with belt-fed machineguns and spray-painted with the names of provincial towns, the militia trucks that roam Tripoli are a daily reminder to its residents of how militarized their new political landscape has become.
In a country eager to swap the gun for the ballot box, the assertive presence of armed groups in the capital is seen by many as an unwelcome attempt to occupy the political vacuum created by the fall of Muammar Gaddafi six weeks ago.
In theory the heavily-armed paramilitaries are allies against Gaddafi, but in practice the behavior of the various groups, their loyalty pledged principally to their respective home towns, suggests they are morphing into determined rivals.
War-weary Libyans are concerned the competition remains peaceful.
Azzedine Ageel, a columnist in February newspaper, wrote: “One of the dangers is that, in the absence of a strong government and firmly-rooted security and justice institutions, people will resort to the law of the jungle and take matters into their own hands.”
On a visit to Tripoli last week, Senator Lindsey Graham said Libya had a very bright future, “but there are fault lines. When this war is over, someone has to convince the militias to lay down their guns and follow the rule of law.”
“This can be a showcase for what the Arab Spring is all about. But if you don’t watch it, it can go backwards.”
Gaddafi may still be at large, but his last bastions are under siege, and so, Libyans say, opposition to him is increasingly unable to act, as it once did, as the glue that sealed the inter-provincial alliance of convenience that ended his rule.
Many of these militias have stayed on, saying they are needed to provide security. Many see thinly-veiled attempts to stake rival claims to national power, pointing to statements by several groups extolling the exploits of their men during the uprising.
Aside from provincial rivalries, there is competition between the Islamist-run Tripoli Military Council, which has nominal control over the whole city and is believed to be backed by Qatar, and formations loyal to the interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, a Western-trained technocrat.
Making political statements continues to be an activity pursued by men in uniform as much as by the civilian leaders of the country’s interim authority.
A diplomat said weapons confiscated by militias from the many arsenals used by Gaddafi forces during the uprising had been stored in agreed locations as part of attempts to remove unlicensed weapons from the city. But some, he said, had found their way back to their respective home cities.
“It’s a dangerous game,” the diplomat said. “The militias are suspicious of each other. They think accumulating weapons gives them a stake in political power.”
At first glance, Tripoli remains a city in celebration. But as the weeks wear on, euphoria is receding and everyday concerns are pressing. The city wants to get back to business.
The militias say they will be gone when the state institutions are restored. But residents are questioning when that will be.
“It needs attention,” said an official of the National Transitional Council, the country’s caretaker government, referring to relations between the rival armed groups in the capital of two million people.
In one recent incident reported by residents, gunmen from one militia tried to break into a downturn office tower overnight. They were prevented from taking the location, a prized property which has a extensive car parking facilities, when local residents came onto the streets carrying guns and ordered them out.
In another incident reported by several residents of the capital, several hundred militiamen mobilized for an armed confrontation when they learnt a colleague had been beaten up by a member of another militia. Only the intervention of their commander persuaded the men to back down, the residents said.
The NTC authorities say they are well aware of the risks and are working hard to ensure all parties keep talking to each other. De facto head of state and NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil held a successful meeting with militias last week to gain greater cooperation, an NTC officials said.
One foreign official who knows the NTC leadership well said: “Jalil is not the kind of man to knock heads together.”
On Sunday evening, the February newspaper reported, all security and military councils of Tripoli met and agreed to unify under one umbrella. Militias originating in other towns should move outside the city limits, it said.
There was no immediate comment from the NTC on the report.
The NTC has said all parties should understand that the country is still in a conflict and full normality cannot be expected.
“Our freedom fighters are brave people and they cannot be called bad names. Our freedom fighters are the people who did their best to keep Libya free under any circumstances,” Ahmed Bani said in September.
“At the end of this period all of the people who have no relation to the gun will hand back their guns. There is no room for radical thought or disorderly behavior in our actions.”.
The main security institution in the Libyan capital is the Tripoli Military Council, which is run by Abdulhakim Belhadj, a veteran Islamist foe of Gaddafi. Several large militias in the city say they cooperate with his council, but have no formal link to it..
Mukhtar al-Akhdar, leader of a militia from Zintan, told Reuters all were cooperating well.
“Everyone has this as a mind set to secure the safety of Tripoli and other liberated cities. Of course there are violations; we are not saints or angels. These violations even took place during the previous regime; but generally the violations are minor.
“You have to know that we came here based on a plan; we did not come here just like that. Tripoli did not move on its own. We all moved based on a plan that was agreed upon.”
On Sunday, a revolutionary officer announced the creation of a new armed group, the Tripoli Revolutionists Council, to keep order in Tripoli, a mission that analysts say may overlap uneasily with that of Belhadj’s Council.
An analyst in Tripoli who did not want to be identified as the subject was sensitive said Naker’s remarks suggested he was a supporter of Jibril.
Supporters of Belhadj make little secret of their disdain for Jibril, who they say is seeking to exclude them from a share of power following Gaddafi’s fall.
George Joffe, a Libya expert at Cambridge University, said he regarded the announcement of the new Council as “a very negative development.”
It either meant the NTC had lost control of the military situation or it meant a faction inside the NTC had decided to take on the Islamists.
Some analysts say that the strains evident in Tripoli are a result of the fact that it fell so quickly. It did not have the chance, as Benghazi did, of developing a civil society and a tradition of post-revolutionary debate in the six months between its liberation and Gaddafi’s fall. Tripoli’s politicians, they suggest, just need practice.
On Friday, in Bengazi, for the second successive week, the imam at Tahrir square, the epicenter of the uprising against Gaddafi, said Libya was now one country for all its people and expressed gratitude for “martyrs” from different cities naming Misrata, Benghazi, Ajdabiyah, Garyan and many others.
He said no one should claim credit for a specific city over another.
“If you hear a tongue saying that, cut it,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib and Hisham el-Dani in Tripoli and Emad Omar in Benghazi; Editing by Christian Lowe and Samia Nakhoul;