TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libya's parliament chief ordered Islamist-led militias to deploy in the capital Tripoli on Monday, trying to impose control after forces loyal to a renegade general stormed the legislature's building, in a move that raises the potential for a showdown between rival militias.
The revolt by Gen. Khalifa Hifter threatens to detonate the volatile divisions plaguing Libya since the 2011 ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
For the past three years, multiple militias have run rampant in the North African nation — some with al-Qaida-style extremist ideologies. The central government has almost no authority and the military and police remain shattered since the civil war that ousted Gadhafi.
Militias also wield heavy influence over the political scene. Some support Islamist political parties, which hold the majority in parliament, while others back the Islamists' political opponents. For months the two sides have been in a tenuous balance of fear, with each wary of any overt move against the other.
Hifter could throw off that balance. He launched his uprising last week, presenting himself as a nationalist aiming to restore order to the country. He has vowed to crush the Islamists, whom he accuses of seizing control of the country and opening the door to al-Qaida-inspired extremists. Hifter was once a general in Gadhafi's military, but turned against him in the 1980s and lived in the United States for years before returning to join the 2011 revolt against Gadhafi.
The general appears to be harness widespread public frustration with the government's impotence and with Islamists' power. Opponents, in turn, accuse him of seeking to grab power.
On Sunday, militias backing Hifter stormed parliament and ransacked the building before withdrawing to the southern part of the capital, where they clashed with rivals in fighting that reportedly killed two and wounded 50. Hifter's camp declared the suspension of the legislature and the handover of its powers to a 60-member body recently elected to write the constitution.
In response, parliament chief Nouri Abu Sahmein — an Islamist-leaning politician — on Monday ordered a powerful umbrella group of mainly Islamist militias known as "Libya's Central Shield" to mobilize and defend the city against Hifter's forces.
Abu Sahmein said in the order that the mobilization was to counter "the attempt to wreck the path of democracy and take power."
The conflict threatens to polarize Libya's militias into pro-Hifter and pro-Islamist camps and pit the two sides against each other. Already some among the hundreds of militias around the country were starting to line up.
One of Libya's many al-Qaida-inspired extremist groups on Monday vowed to fight Hifter's forces.
"You have entered a battle you will lose," a masked militant, identifying himself as Abu Musab al-Arabi, said in a video posted on militant websites by the Lions of Monotheism.
On the other side, a militia group known the Special Forces, led by a prominent commander, Wanis Abu Khamada, called on people to rise up and hold street protests against Islamic extremists, though it stopped short of announcing a full alliance with Hifter.
"We will not hand the nation to a bunch of criminals, takfiris and deviants from the faith," the group said on its website. Takfiri is an Arabic term referring to Islamic extremists.
The western mountain town Nalout showed how the conflict could divide communities. A militia group in the town called the Military Council announced its support for parliament. But an army unit in the town announced its backing for Hifter.
Hifter appears to have the support of one of the country's most powerful militias, that of the western Zintan region. The two largest militias in Tripoli — the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq, both of which are commanded by figured from Zintan — are behind him.
Hifter also draws strong backing in the eastern part of the country, including his home city of Bengazhi, Libya's second largest city, where anger at Islamic extremists is high after months of near daily killings of military and police officials, judges, activists and clerics by suspected extremists.
On Friday, Hifter loyalists battled Islamist militias in Benghazi in fighting that reportedly killed 70 people.
The Islamist parties, in turn, are backed by another of the country's most powerful militias — the militia based in the western city of Misrata, the country's third largest city.
Mohammed al-Fitori, a political analyst based in Misrata who is close to the city's militias, denounced Hifter, accusing him of trying to destroy the nascent democracy Libya has struggled to create since the "revolution" that ousted Gadhafi.
"We are against the military rule and against terrorism. We are the revolution," he said.
In Benghazi, a lawyer prominent in the city said there is general public backing there for Hifter because he is seen as a figure who "can rescue them from terrorism." But the lawyer said he personally worries that after defeating Islamists, Hifter would become a new dictator.
"I don't want a new Gadhafi," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Hifter's declaration of parliament's suspension was largely ignored, and his forces pulled out late Sunday. For hours afterward, fighting took place around the road to the Tripoli's airport and its southern outskirts. By Monday morning, the gunfire died down and a tentative calm returned to the city.
On Tuesday, parliament is due to hold a session to give a vote of confidence in a new Cabinet, according to lawmaker Mohammed al-Samoud. That could pose a new test whether Hifter will try to enforce his declaration and prevent the session. Islamists succeeded in removing the Western-backed prime minister earlier this year and installed a replacement, prompting some opponents to quit parliament.
Youssef reported from Cairo.