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Since Muammar Gadhafi was ousted as Libya's ruler, the country's been an anarchy of factions, bombings and assassinations. And now a rogue general has mounted his own war against Islamists. He's even directed militias supposedly working for the government to launch airstrikes. NPR's Leila Fadel went to Libya's capital Tripoli and reports on the man of the moment.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: His name is Khalifa Hifter, an officer from Gadhafi's old army who led a failed war in Chad in the 1980s before fleeing to the United States where he settled in Virginia. He isn't particularly loved but he's finding support among factions of the patchwork militias that make up Libya's security forces as well as powerful political players as he vows to fight extremism.
KHALIFA HIFTER: (Through translator) We'll show no mercy to anyone who falls into our hands, he tells a room of reporters in eastern Libya. After surviving a recent assassination attempt, we are defending the world against terrorism.
FADEL: Military force, Hifter says, is the only way forward. And he's holding true to his word, ordering airstrikes from the renegade air force in Benghazi that is now loyal to him. The city is the birthplace of Libya's revolution and a center for Islamist militias. And many citizens welcome Hifter's battle because to date no one's been held accountable for near daily kidnappings and assassinations. The latest - the brutal shooting and stabbing of outspoken human rights lawyer Salwa Bugaighis.
The most extreme of these militias is Ansar al-Sharia, which has vowed to bring in foreign fighters if Hifter doesn't stop. The battle is morphing into the biggest crisis in Libya since Gadhafi's ouster. And Hifter's critics say that he threatens to rip the country apart by painting all Islamists as terrorists and unilaterally going to war.
We meet Mohammed Busidra, an Islamist legislator from the outgoing parliament in the courtyard of the Radisson hotel in Tripoli. Here even opposing politicians, militiamen and wealthy businessman mix in the lush garden over cappuccinos.
MOHAMMED BUSIDRA: Well, listen. I can tell you even if he has the whole world behind him, he will never rule us.
FADEL: Busidra says Hifter is trying to be a new Gadhafi. And he says Hifter is building his popularity by demonizing Islamists.
BUSIDRA: We have a saying here in Libya. In English - maybe I don't know how to translate it - but it says hold the dog's tail until you pass the depths, right? That's exactly now they're doing - this what they're doing with Hifter - not thinking, not holding his tail to pass.
FADEL: Busidra warns the U.S. not to support Hifter as some suspect it might.
BUSIDRA: If they support Hifter or anybody else to take over power here in Libya - I guess the will of the people through the Democratic operation through election and all that - believe me there will be no system in Libya and no Libya.
FADEL: But Hifter's supporters say he is filling a vacuum that has allowed militias divided by region, tribe and ideology to control their areas. And no one in the government has been willing or able to stop the violence.
TAWFIQ: Take my advice and just try to stay in Tripoli - to leave Benghazi for a while until they just forget about your activism.
FADEL: That's Tawfiq, a young civil society activist I met in Tripoli. He describes a phone call from a member of Ansar al-Sharia, the group accused of playing a role in the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in 2012. The curly-haired 18-year-old asked to be identified by his first name for his security. He openly accuses Ansar al-Sharia of assassinations in Benghazi.
But despite the threats, he's back in his city to support Hifter's battle. But the nation is divided. And at coffee shops across the capital, it is the topic of conversation. Moattassim al-Aalam isn't sure what to think anymore. The sharply dressed investment banker is anti-Islamist and uses the word 'beardos,' a derisive reference to bearded Islamists.
MOATTASSIM AL-AALAM: When Hifter first came out, me and a lot of people, I think - we saw him as a wonderful tool. You know, he'll get rid of all the beardos for us. You know, and then we can settle our differences. But that divide is splitting houses and neighborhoods now.
FADEL: So he's worried - worried that Libya is hurtling toward civil war. Leila Fadel, NPR News.
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