BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Fighters who toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya’s uprising will keep their weapons for now to aid in security, an Islamist commander said.
Many are expected to leave their units, given the end of major combat operations, while those who stay could accept command from the nascent defense ministry, brigade leader Abduljawad Bedeen said in an interview.
“A large percentage want to return to civilian life, and I wouldn’t be surprised if individuals chose to be part of the army,” he told Reuters. “As units we are not opposed to coming under the umbrella of the army — our main goal is to serve our country.”
“What we don’t want to see is a public relations event where fighters turn in their arms for the cameras,” said Bedeen, who is also spokesman for the Union of Revolutionary Forces that encompasses some 25,000 fighters from Libya’s east.
The Union aims to incorporate brigades in the rest of the country under its command, and its leader, deputy defense minister Fawzi Bukatif, has said those who remain outside should be considered illegitimate.
Trouble may be brewing in parts of Libya where disgruntled and armed civilians are growing increasingly suspicious of their interim rulers’ attempts to bring law and order to a country awash with weapons.
Bedeen, once a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a now-defunct organization that waged a failed insurgency against Gaddafi in the 1990s and was classified as terrorists by the United States, said militias must hold on to arms to prevent pro-Gaddafi forces from attempting to regroup.
“Let us say that we gave up our weapons today — if the pro-Gaddafi forces took over not only Sabha, but also went to other cities — I don’t think the national army could contain such a threat alone,” he said.
For now, Gaddafi loyalists have little hope of reinstalling the dictator’s regime, with his armed forces crushed and most of his family in exile or dead.
But the faction-plagued National Transitional Council (NTC) is struggling to deal with some of the country’s more remote areas such as the restive town of Sabha, in a southern region where Gaddafi spent part of his youth.
Bedeen said that his brigade had been asked by Sabha notables to establish security there, but that the NTC was dragging its feet to give approval for the action. He pointed to his men’s reputation as Islamists as a reason for the delay.
“We will not go without an official request from the NTC. Because in our experience we are often accused of doing something wrong.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we went there and the next day on the news heard we were accused of sending weapons to al-Qaeda in Algeria.”
Many now wonder what version of political Islam fighters inspired by religion will seek to bring to the country.
Most of the fighters, who often went into combat shouting “God is greatest,” are devout Muslims and many could be considered Islamists, Bedeen said. But he sees their political goals as moderate.
“It’s difficult to say they have one way of thought or political agenda, but I can definitely say there is a large percentage of Islamists.... I did not see anyone with a secular agenda.”
“A large percentage of the fighters want the sharia applied and a constitution that does not conflict with it,” he said, referring to Islamic law. “I think all Libyans want this, not just the Islamists.”
Libya, with a population of six million, is almost completely Sunni Muslim and religiously conservative, but there are varied views on Islam’s role in the new era.
As in other countries which have seen revolts in the so-called Arab Spring, political Islam has seen a resurgence in Libya, but Islamist statements about sharia or religion in politics are only rough indicators of what lies ahead politically.
Many Middle Eastern constitutions already enshrine Islam as the official religion and mention sharia as the basis of law, but also have civil and penal codes based on European models. Islamists in Libya say the new system should be inclusive and acceptable even to non-Muslims.
Bedeen, who lived for years in exile across the Arab world and was eventually extradited to Libya and jailed for his opposition to Gaddafi, said he did not think al-Qaeda could implant itself in Libya.
“If they were to send people here they would have a very, very weak presence... I don’t think the Libyan people would accept it.”
Some members of the LIFG organization to which he once belonged are believed by Western officials to have helped young men in the Arab diaspora to travel to Iraq to fight. But the group rejected overtures by al-Qaeda and its leaders have publicly denounced extremism.
As for the black Islamic battle flags seen carried by some Libyan fighters, Bedeen says these have noting to do with support for al-Qaeda, which has flown similar flags in Iraq. Officially, revolutionary units only fly the pre-Gaddafi Libyan flag but they do not oppose individual expression.
“First of all, al-Qaeda doesn’t even have an official flag. And just because they’ve used a similar one doesn’t mean they have exclusive rights to it,” he said.
Editing by Oliver Holmes and Peter Graff