TRIPOLI, Libya — The protesters converged on the conference center housing Libya's newly elected congress, trying to force their way in past startled guards. Mostly young and half of them women in headscarves, they demanded an end to the siege of the town of Bani Walid, where the government was in the midst of an attack to uproot holdouts from Moammar Gadhafi's former regime.
Police rushed to the scene. But in Libya, the police are actually militias, in this case from the Tripoli neighborhood of Souq al-Jumaa that last year lost several men in a battle with Bani Walid residents. Instead trying to control the crowd, the "police" dressed in t-shirts and pants of a military uniform exchanged threats with protesters and then mounted a rival demonstration of their own. Soon they were firing their assault rifles in the air to intimidate the protesters.
As tensions soared, a dozen pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns and carrying soldiers in newly pressed camouflage uniforms pulled up to parliament, swiveled their guns forward and fired in the air as an apparent crowd-control method. The deafening noise of a dozen heavy-caliber machine guns sent demonstrators running and filled the upscale neighborhood with the sounds of battle. Blocks away, shocked bystanders wondered if one year after the civil war ended, Libya had gone back to war.
After a year of turmoil since Gadhafi's ouster and last month's killing of the American ambassador, Libyans are disappointed, disillusioned and increasingly angry at their government. They complain that their leaders have not acted forcefully to address the most pressing problems — particularly the free rein of the country's many militias.
"It's not going very well partly because we have a minister of defense and minister of interior who were very incompetent and weak — they gave into the militias," said Guma Gamaty, a politician and outspoken critic of the militias. "The whole process of rebuilding the army and the police has not progressed much at all in the last 10 months. We lost a lot of vital time."
Last year's fight that ended in Gadhafi's ouster and death after 42 years in power was largely carried out by regional militias that amassed weapons. But long after the civil war ended, the militias continue to serve under their own leaders and wield significant power even though they have nominally come under the control of the state's military and police forces.
The lack of control of the government over the militias it relies on was brought home in the starkest terms on Sept. 11, the day of attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, the eastern city where last year's uprising against Gadhafi began. The Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah, one of the biggest militias in Benghazi, is suspected in the assault that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Before the attack, Ansar al-Shariah had been working with the municipal government to manage security in Benghazi, and it had been charged among other things with guarding the hospital.
The killings in Benghazi fueled popular anger against the militias. Just a week after the assault, tens of thousands of Benghazis attacked the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah and another militia in Benghazi and drove them out.
The government took advantage of the public anger. In the days after the attack, authorities carried out high-profile weapon hand-ins in Tripoli and Benghazi and issued ultimatums for all militias to submit entirely to government control.
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