By Jacob Wirtschafter
Even as US airstrikes enabled Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) to seize ISIS’s Sirte command center this week,
a struggle between the GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, the army commander Khalifa Hafter, and Sadiq Al-Ghariani, the country’s top Muslim cleric, jeopardizes prospects for a unified state.
A spokesman for the GNA Forces said the army loyal to the UN-backed government in Tripoli had dislodged ISIS fighters from the university campus built by former leader Moammar Gadhafi in his hometown of Sirte. The Mediterranean port has been ruled by Islamic State for nearly two years.
“The fight is intense, we’ve lost fourteen martyrs,” said spokesman Reda Issa after GNA troops extended their control from the central Ouagadougou Conference Center to the city’s southeast with strategic support from US drones and fighter jets.
“We’ve also moved the enemy [ISIS forces] out of the Ibn Sina hospital,” Isa told The Media Line.
On August 1 Sarraj delivered a televised speech preparing Libyans for American air raids acknowledging his government requested direct U.S. air support to dislodge ISIS from Sirte. Two rival governments are competing for authority in Libya — the Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli, recognized by the international community, and the elected House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk, which has refused to endorse the unity government
“There will be no foreign intervention without the authorization of this government and this decision is an activation of Libya’s role in both Islamic and international alliances to fight terrorism,” said Sarraj.
The GNA has dubbed its Sirte campaign “Operation Strong Foundation” but the effort faces fierce criticism from Libyan Muslim leaders.
“The issue is crystal clear now,” chief mufti Sadiq Al-Ghariani told the Tripoli Islamist TV station Tanasuh. “Libyans must unite to fight the foreign attack and U.S. airstrikes are unacceptable.”
Al-Ghariani’s opposition to the GNA’s request for air cover is a predictable stance for an Islamist leader.
But political griping from secular parliamentarians in Eastern Libya reveals rampant provincial rivalries preventing the country from reaching a meaningful accord.
“The airstrikes are illegal and unconstitutional,” Ali Tekbali, a lawmaker in the Eastern City of Tobruk told the Media Line. “Striking terrorism is required but must be done in consultation with the House of Representatives.”
Tekbali is aligned with army commander Khalifa Hafter who defected to the United States in the 1990’s and is now backed by both Egypt and France.
Now Hafter and his allies are sore that they were frozen out of the operation to oust Islamic State from Sirte and the Tripoli based Government of National Accord has slammed France for putting its special forces at Hafter’s disposal without consulting Prime Minister Sarraj.
French President François Hollande and Egypt’s Abel Fatah el Sisi see Hafter as an indispensable figure in creating a strong secular state in Libya.
In July Paris acknowledged its assistance to Hafter after three of its soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash during an intelligence-gathering operation.
Talks held in Cairo this week between the GNA’s vice president Ahmed Maetig and top Egyptian officials failed to reach a formula to bring Hafter into the equation.
“Egypt will continue to pursue diplomacy in order to reach solutions that suit all Libyan parties in to preserve the unity of the state in order to fight terrorism,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry after inconclusive talks Tuesday with Maetig.
The contradictions over which countries can assist Libya in its struggle against Islamic State have jeopardized the credibility of all the major players.
“Regional and international powers are proceeding according to their own interests”, said Ibrahim Sahad, a former intelligence officer who founded the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, considered the first effective opposition group. “These forces sponsor the continuation of tribal and regional differences but at this point I think it is fair to say that Hafter and Mufti are the main obstacles to unity.”
The Media Line