Libya's renegade general calls for presidential council to take over power

The Associated Press

FILE - In this Friday, March 18, 2011 file photo, then Libyan senior Rebel commander Khalifa Hifter leaves a press conference in the court house in the center of Benghazi, eastern Libya. Gen. Khalifa Hifter has been waiting for his moment for decades. A top general under Moammar Gadhafi, he was tainted by a disastrous defeat in a war in Chad. Exiled in the United States, he joined the opposition but even since Gadhafi’s 2011 ouster he has struggled for a role, distrusted by other generals. Now supporters are flocking to his self-professed campaign to crush Islamists and bring stability. But there are fears his ultimate goal is to become a new strongman. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)

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By ESAM MOHAMED and BRADLEY KLAPPER, Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Gen. Khalifa Hifter has been waiting decades for his moment.

A top general under Moammar Gadhafi, he was tainted by a disastrous defeat in a war against neighboring Chad. Exiled in the United States, he helped lead the opposition and vowed to return one day. Since Gadhafi's 2011 ouster he has struggled for a role, distrusted by other generals.

Now his time may have come. He is presenting himself as Libya's potential savior after nearly two years of chaos in which unruly militias are exercising power over elected officials and assassinating dozens of soldiers and police.

In less than a week since Hifter surfaced, supporters flocked to his self-professed campaign to crush Islamist militias and their backers in parliament and to bring stability to the country.

But there are fears his ultimate goal is to make himself into a new Gadhafi, and his democratic credentials are far from established.

"If Hifter wants to put the country on the right path then leave, he is welcome, but if he wants to take over power, we won't accept more coups," said prominent lawyer Abdullah Banoun in Tripoli. "Gadhafi terrorized us for 42 years. The alternative to Gadhafi is a civilian rule, nothing less than that."

Laying out a road map for transitional period, Hifter called for the country's top judicial authorities to form a new presidential council to take over power until holding new parliamentary elections. In a televised statement late Wednesday Hifter appeared in a military uniform and surrounded by military officers accused the current Islamist-dominated parliament of turning Libya to a state "sponsoring terrorism" and a "hideout to terrorists" who infiltrated the joints of the state, wasted its resources and controlled its decision making. He asserted that the military wants the "continuation of political life" and stressed that the new council is a "civilian" one in an apparent attempt to defuse fears of militarizing the state.

Since Friday, Hifter has been leading an armed revolt in perhaps the biggest challenge yet to the country's weak central government and fledgling security forces. He says his campaign, dubbed "Operation Dignity," aims to break the power of Islamists who lead parliament. He accuses the Islamists of fueling Libya's chaos and opening the door to extremism.

On Sunday, Hifter's militia allies stormed and ransacked the parliament building in Tripoli, declaring the body suspended. Two days later, some lawmakers tried to hold a session at an alternative location to vote on a new prime minister, but came under rocket fire, effectively ending the session.

The turn of events from a Gadhafi dictatorship to a civil war to persistent lawlessness has led to the prospect of another military man steering Libya. It calls to mind neighboring Egypt, where a revolution ousted longtime autocratic president Hosni Mubarak and paved the way for free elections - only to have the military oust the unpopular Islamist president and put the army chief in charge.

Hifter, a 70-year-old military officer, helped Gadhafi in his 1969 coup against the Libyan monarchy by taking control over Tripoli's Matiga airbase, according to his son. He then rose through the ranks of the Libyan army until he was named the military chief, and led Libyan forces alongside Egyptian forces in the 1973 Arab war against Israel.

But Libya's disastrous defeat in its decade-long war in Chad did not help Hifter's reputation.

"The war was a scandal," Libyan historian Fathi al-Fadhali told The Associated Press, noting that thousands of Libyan soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. Hifter "is the worst military leader Libya has known," he said. "He didn't have a plan - even a withdrawal plan."