On a dusty parade ground outside Tripoli, young recruits march and bark out slogans for the new Libyan army that Western powers hope can turn the tide on militias threatening to engulf the North African country in anarchy.
Their boots are new and their fatigues pressed, but Libya’s army recruits will need more than drills to take on the hardened militiamen, Islamist fighters and political rivalries testing their OPEC nation’s stability.
Two years after NATO missiles helped rebels drive out Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is under siege from former rebel fighters who now flex their military muscle to make demands on the state, seize oilfields and squabble over post-war spoils.
With Libya’s army still in the making, Western powers are keen to halt chaos in the key European oil supplier and stop illicit arms spilling across North Africa.
In November, prime minister Ali Zeidan stood by in London as US secretary of state John Kerry and Britain’s William Hague pledged support. Just weeks earlier, Zeidan himself was briefly abducted from a Tripoli hotel by militiamen.
Everyone agrees Libya needs help. But after four decades of Gaddafi rule, Libya’s stuttering decision-making, fragile leadership and chronic disorganisation hamper cooperation. Infighting between broadly liberal and Islamist camps in the assembly, and their network of militia allies, muddies Western efforts to stabilise a country where NATO’s intervention was seen as a model two years ago.
“What happens next depends on outside pressure. If we don’t make a compromise, we’ll lose Libya,” says Tofiq Al Shahibi, a leader with the National Forces Alliance party. “If we think we can build our country without outside help, we will fail.”
Libya’s new army is already being tested. The worst clashes in Tripoli since 2011 killed more than 40 people last month, forcing quasi-legal militias to withdraw from the capital and leave the nascent army to patrol for now.
In Benghazi, where Islamist militants assaulted the US consulate last year killing four Americans including the ambassador, Libya’s special forces are now taking on the same hardline group Washington blames for the September 2012 attack.
Turkey, Italy, and Britain are leading the way with promises to train around 8,000 troops and police in skills from infantry basics to forensics. Other recruits are graduating from programmes in Jordan.
But Western military support is in its infancy. The army struggles even to pin down how many troops it has, including new recruits, ex-Gaddafi soldiers and militiamen drafted into the ranks.
As in other countries where Arab Spring revolts ousted autocrats, Libya’s messy path from Gaddafi’s rule is complicating Western efforts.
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