Celebrating Peace and Unity in Libya, but Feeling Tension Beneath the Surface
Publisher: the New York Times, USA
Author: By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
Story date: 15/11/2011
Language: English

ZINTAN, Libya — Few towns sacrificed or contributed as much to the Libyan insurrection as this dusty mountain town southwest of Tripoli. On Tuesday there was joy, poetry, exhibitions of masterful horsemanship, parachute jumps, speeches and symbols of national unity. Dozens of war prisoners were even quietly freed.

But between the lines in many of the speeches by political leaders from around the country, there were warnings, threats and subtle jabs that suggest the revolution has many challenges ahead.

A leader from Misurata, another rebel stronghold, warned the interim government not to include anyone aligned with the regime of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in the new administration. A national leader made several veiled warnings about the growing influence of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. And there was no sign that any rebel militias would give up their arms soon.

"Libya should have no differences between north and south nor between tribes," said Mahmoud Jibril, who led the rebels' Transitional National Council through the revolt and served as interim prime minister before stepping down two weeks ago. "We should be united so we can prove to the world that the last 42 years were an exception to Libyan history."

There were many pitch-perfect calls for competing militias, towns and tribes to meld together as one nation, as were the cheers and responses of "God is great" from a crowd of 5,000 gathered on the hilltops above an equestrian field used for Zintan festivals. The city has a population of only 50,000, but its support is critical for the new government, because so many people here have weapons at a time when sporadic confrontations continue between militias around the country.

While government officials are negotiating in Tripoli and Benghazi over who will get which posts in a new cabinet, militia leaders in Zintan and Misurata are jockeying over who will command a new national army, which is scheduled to be formed over the next month. Zintan fighters were ordered by the interim government to leave Tripoli four days ago, but they still have not departed from their checkpoints around the capital.

So it was not insignificant that Abdulrahman Souweli, a senior Misurata militia leader, told the crowd: "The people of Misurata and Zintan were together in victory. We have to remain united." But, Mr. Souweli added, "there's no place for those who worked with Qaddafi in the new government. We won't allow that."

Sitting behind him under a canopy with national leaders and foreign ambassadors was Muktar al-Akhdar, a former Qaddafi army colonel who played a critical role in leading the Zintan forces to take control of Tripoli's airport at the end of the war.

Still a militia leader, Mr. Al-Akhdar did not address the crowd. But in an interview after the speeches, he made it clear that he intended to pursue a significant national role. He said his forces did not plan to surrender their weapons until they were satisfied that a good national army and police force had been formed to protect the country.

"The people of Zintan will safeguard Libya's well-being and stability," he said, adding that even if his forces disarmed, "we know how to get weapons if anything happens to Libya."

The central message of the day was the one that officials in the interim government have been trying to project every day for weeks: One battle is over, but another is beginning — to rehabilitate the wounded, rebuild destroyed cities and get the country moving again. Unity is paramount, government officials and even militia leaders say.

The day's festival was called in the name of freedom, which Zintan fighters said was their banner throughout the war as they created a vital southern front against the forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi.

Zintan is a poor town, but one that celebrates horsemanship and poetry, and there was plenty of both on a sunny day. A young boy wearing a flowing white traditional robe recited a poem to the crowd, declaring, "Freedom is like a flower, like a bird flying over the sky."

During the festivities, according to Zintan security guards, as many as 80 people taken prisoner during the war — mostly those suspected of supporting the Qaddafi government — were released. It was done without being announced, so as not to anger the people celebrating their recent victory, the guards said.

But Mr. Jibril warned that there were threats to the nation's freedom, both internal and external. He did not mention a country by name, but it was clear he was making one more in a series of warnings about Qatar, which had offered crucial military, financial and political support to the rebels.

"If we don't stay together I'm afraid another power will have an impact in Libya," he said during his speech. At another point, he said, "If we don't unite, that could lead to foreign intervention in Libya."

Mr. Jibril is not the only leader who has warned that Qatar has gone around the rebel authorities to arm militias on their own to increase its influence and possibly to promote an Islamist agenda.

His remarks came a day after the vice chairman of the Transitional National Council, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, criticized other leaders for distancing themselves from Qatar.

"These statements are personal statements and do not represent the ideas of the Transitional National Council," he said. "The Transitional National Council appreciates the role of Qatar in supporting Libya."
 

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