Libya, Tribes and Islam: Who’s fighting whom By Ameen Izzadeen

As the battle rages in Libya and scores, if not hundreds, die daily, the picture is slowly emerging giving a hint of who is fighting whom for what, and who is on whose side.

The conflict in Libya has all the features of a civil war. The country is divided along the people's love and hatred for the embattled Muammar Gaddafi, who has been ruling this North African country for the past 42 years with an iron fist masqueraded as people's democracy.

Age-old rivalries among Libya's tribes have resurfaced to add fuel to the burning rebellion in the oil-rich east, where the people have often complained of favoured treatment for the western part of the country in the distribution of national wealth.

With leaders representing powerful tribes such as the Wafrallah, Zawiya, Bani Walid and Zintan withdrawing their loyalty from Gaddafi, their tribesmen in the military have deserted camp and joined the revolt, adding a military character to the people's uprising and making it different from the people's power revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Gaddafi was not unprepared for the defections. He has filled the military's top posts with officers from his Qadhafa tribe or from tribes loyal to him. He made his paramilitary forces comprising largely men from his tribe and other loyal tribes more powerful than the military. The conflict, therefore, is not without tribal undertones with the battle lines dividing the more populated and less developed east and the less populated and more developed west.

Preparing to pitch camp in the bloody desert is the imperialist West which, salivating over Libya's oil, is pushing for a United Nations approved no-fly zone as part of its plan to invade the country on the pretext of humanitarian intervention.

A no-fly zone means Libyan government forces, which are checking the rebel advance towards the west of the country with some success, will not be able to use aircraft in the war. If they do, the Western powers will shoot down the aircraft and destroy Libya's airstrips and airbases. This will mean a full-scale war between Libya and the Western powers.

With the Libyan military being no match to the military might of the West, such a situation will tilt the balance in favour of the Libyan opposition forces and may lead to the ouster of the embattled Libyan leader or to the fragmentation of the country along a ceasefire line determined by the Western powers safeguarding their oil interests.

But having a foothold in Libya won't be as easy as the imperialists think. Their modus operandi in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq may not work in the case of Libya. In Afghanistan, they befriended the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban regime. In Iraq, the Kurds and the Shiites who had been oppressed by Saddam Hussein helped the US-led coalition forces in the invasion. But in Libya, the opposition, or at least a powerful section of it, is anti-West.

The opposition is a motley group united by their common hatred to Gaddafi. It consists of powerful tribes, Islamists and those who defected from the Gaddafi camp, especially former ministers. It is believed that some sections of the opposition, especially the government officials and officers who defected, had secret links with the West and are trying to hijack the revolt to suit the agenda of their imperialist backers. But they find it difficult because of the strong presence of Islamists in the opposition alliance. This is the ground reality which the war-hungry British Prime Minister David Cameron unsuccessfully tried to assess by sending a secret military mission to Libya's east last week. The Libyan opposition — read Islamists — arrested and detained them for two days before they were finally allowed to set sail for Malta.

That the Libyan revolt is Islamic in character is being deliberately under-reported by the western media although slogans on the battlefield vouch for it. Even the pro-US Qatari-government-funded Al-Jazeera television will not talk about it although Gaddafi keeps on harping that al-Qaeda backed Islamists are orchestrating the rebellion.

The eastern part of Libya has been the base of the country's Islamists. It was also the birth place of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). According to the Washington-based Centre for Defence Information, LIFG is a band of radical Islamists dedicated to overthrowing the Gaddafi regime and replacing it with a government modelled on the Sunna (practices) of the Prophet Muhammad.

The LIFG believes that the Gaddafi regime is oppressive, corrupt and apostate. The group comprises warriors who fought alongside Mujahideens in Afghanistan in the war against the Soviet Union. After the war they returned to Libya and formed the LIFG with the intention of ousting the corrupt regime of Gaddafi and uniting the Muslim world and making them powerful. In 1996, they tried to assassinate Gaddafi. The botched attempt led to a brutal crackdown on the group and the arrest of several leaders.

Captured leaders later pleaded with their followers to give up the fight, but only a few heeded the call. Many LIFG youth who are fiercely anti-West left the country; some joined the jihad against the American occupiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, many eventually returned after disagreement with al-Qaeda.

The United States and Britain have branded the group as a terrorist organization and frozen its assets. But the group's members are heroes in the more religious east, where they are protected by powerful tribes, among whom is Imnifa that gave Libya Omar Mukhtar, the legendary freedom warrior. Mukhtar's heroic life story was made into a Hollywood movie with Anthony Quinn in the lead role. His 90-year-old son, Mohammed Omar Mukhtar, cautions those who try to describe the Libyan war as a conflict between tribes. He is hopeful that all the tribes will come together again to oust Gaddafi, displaying the same unity that existed when his father led the war against the Italian colonialists.

The Islamists, it appears, are standing in the way of the imperialists' war agenda in Libya. Yet the West is trying to hide the lead role the Islamists are playing in the rebellion, for obvious reasons. Well, after all, in realpolitik even a terrorist can be a bedfellow.

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