Wed, Mar 23, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Unity government aims to save Libya, but has to get in first

Europe and the US said they want the unity government established so they can support it militarily to suppress the IS — leaving open how to get it into place

By Maggie Michael and Rami Musa  /  AP, CAIRO

The US, Europe and the UN have all pinned their hopes for resolving Libya’s chaos and blocking the Islamic State group’s growth in the nation on a newly announced unity government. The problem is: It is not clear how the government can actually get into the nation.

The unity government, brokered by the UN and headed by a little-known Libyan technocrat, Fayez al-Sarraj, is supposed to replace the two rival administrations — one based in the capital, Tripoli, the other based in the eastern city of Tobruk — that have been battling each other for more than a year, each one backed by an assortment of militias.

However, the Tripoli-based government, dominated by Muslim militants, and some of its allied militias last week said they would never allow the new administration — whose members are currently in neighboring Tunisia — into the capital.

“We say it has no place among us,” said Khalifa al-Ghweil, the Tripoli-based prime minister.

He said the unity government was “imposed from the outside” and his administration would never let in a leadership “installed” by the UN.

Al-Sarraj told a Libyan TV channel on Thursday last week that he would be in Tripoli within days.

Meanwhile, the Tobruk-based parliament, which is the one recognized by the international community, still has not formally approved the UN deal. While some members support al-Sarraj’s government, others outright reject it, viewing it as a compromise to their Tripoli rivals. Most significantly, eastern-based strongman Khalifa Hifter, a general who commands a force of army units and militias that has been battling Muslim militants allied to Tripoli, has remained silent on the deal and many of his loyalists oppose it.

European nations are divided on how to act, even as they and Washington step up their warnings over the threat from the Islamic State group, which has taken advantage of the chaos to setup a powerful and expanding branch. There has already been some low-level, behind the scenes military intervention. US special forces have been on the ground, working with Libyan officials, and US warplanes have carried out airstrikes. Libyan officials said small teams of French, British and Italian commandos are also on the ground helping militia fighters against Islamic State militants in the eastern city of Benghazi, though those three nations have not confirmed their presence.

However, Europe and the US said they want the unity government, known as the Government of National Accord, in place so they can support it militarily to put down the extremist group — leaving open the question of how to get it into place. European nations are considering sanctions against several politicians accused of undermining it, including al-Ghweil, the head of the Tripoli-based parliament, Nouri Abusahmein, and the head of the Tobruk parliament, Agila Saleh. However, the EU is still debating the sanctions.

“The reality is, the unity government is the only way out, but may not survive,” European Council on Foreign Relations policy fellow Mattia Toaldo said, adding that if it does succeed in entering Tripoli, its members could come under attack from the Islamic State group.

“In general, it is a gamble,” he said. “We should not be surprised if the government is targeted physically.”

Toaldo said one way to secure al-Sarraj’s entry into Tripoli could be to arrange a deal among militias within both camps that have shown support for the UN deal to protect his government, or at least remain neutral. Most notably, the powerful militias from the city of Misrata, which nominally back the Tripoli administration, but are more concerned with fighting the Islamic State group, are largely behind the UN deal.

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