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In Libya, politicians in fear of powerful militias

Thursday - 4/10/2014, 10:45am  ET

FILE - In this March 5, 2011 file photo, an anti-government rebel sits with an anti-aircraft weapon in front an oil refinery, after the capture of the oil town of Ras Lanouf, eastern Libya. The official Libyan news agency said Sunday, April 6, 2014 that the country's main militia in the east has agreed to hand back control of four oil terminals it captured and shut down last summer in its demand for a share in oil revenues. The shutdown has cost Libya millions of dollars. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

MAGGIE MICHAEL
Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) -- In a humiliating video, Libya's top politician -- the head of parliament -- is seen begging with a militia commander, trying to explain to him why he was caught with two women in his residence and insisting nothing scandalous was going on.

"In God's name," Nouri Abu Sahmein tells the militiaman, Haitham al-Tajouri. "I'm hiding nothing from you, Haitham." Visibly afraid, Abu Sahmein tells him the women claimed to have "sensitive information" at a time he has received tips about a cell plotting to assassinate him.

"I want to close this all up, but I want to understand. I am not a fool," the militia commander replies, speaking from off camera.

The video, taken and leaked by the militiamen and shown earlier this month on Libyan TV stations, sparked an uproar and prompted the prosecutor general to investigate, summoning Abu Sahmein and al-Tajouri for questioning. The prosecutor is aiming to determine if any crime took place, whether blackmail by the militiaman or a violation of morals laws by Abu Sahmein, an Islamist-leaning politician.

Ultimately what the video highlighted, however, was how weak even Libya's most prominent politicians are in the face of the militias that have become both the enforcers of the law and the fuel of lawlessness in the country since the 2011 ouster and death of Moammar Gadhafi.

From the start, the fledgling government did little to follow through on a program to disarm and demobilize the militias. Instead, officials tried to buy them off, spending billions of dollars to enlist the fighters in various security tasks, without ever winning their loyalty -- or building a state for them to be loyal to.

Now, with the army and police still in disarray, politicians are far too weak to control the militias.

The resulting message is "don't negotiate with the government, prevent any compromise. The government will be too weak to attack back," said Jason Pack, a researcher of Middle Eastern History at Cambridge University who runs the website Libya-Analysis.com, focused on the country's politics and economy.

He said government appeasement of militias and regional demands "has caused erosion of basic institutions ... All of the current problems go back to this."

Abu Sahmein's humiliation was just latest for Libya's elected authorities at the hands of the gunmen.

Nearly six months ago, then-Prime Minister Ali Zidan was kidnapped briefly from his five-star hotel by an Islamist militia group before he was released by another rival armed group. The son of the then-defense minister was kidnapped and held by a militia for four months until his release in January. His father became temporary prime minister after Zidan was removed from his post by parliament last month.

Last summer, parliament and government ministries were blockaded by militias, forcing the lawmakers to pass the "political isolation" law, which barred from politics almost anyone who held a post during Gadhafi's 42-year rule. That included a number of prominent opposition figures who broke with Gadhafi and fought against his rule, then sought to participate in rebuilding the country afterward.

"The law split the country into two: You are either with us or against us," said Hanan Salah, Libya researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, calling the manner of the law's passage "a turning point."

"Since then, it became absolutely legitimate that you use force to achieve your objectives."

The militias originated as brigades of fighters that battled Gadhafi's forces during the 2011 uprising. Since then, they have multiplied in number and ballooned in power, bristling with weapons looted from Gadhafi's arsenals and sent from abroad during the war.

Many are rooted in particular cities or tribes but have extended their power geographically. The militia from Libya's third largest city, Misrata, for example, is a feared powerhouse in the capital, Tripoli, as is the militia from the western Zintan region -- and the two are rivals, each backing one of the two main opposing blocs in parliament. In the country's eastern half, some militias have rallied behind calls for autonomy for the region, known as Cyrenaica, which has long complained of discrimination by Tripoli.

Others are rooted in ideology, particularly the array of hard-line Islamist militias, many of them inspired by al-Qaida.

Former parliament member al-Tawati al-Eiydha says militiamen have abducted a number of lawmakers, then stripped, humiliated and photographed them as blackmail to keep them in line.

He told The Associated Press he met with one victim who described his ordeal -- a lawmaker he refused to identify. He said he investigated further and found "a second, a third and a fourth who were exposed to such treatment."

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