Chaos still reigns in Libya, a year after Gaddafi's death

Bani Walid conflict shows Libya has far to go as it tries to emerge from shadow of brutal dictator

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 3:16am

"Nobody knows where Gaddafi is buried," said Abubaker Ali, 29, a volunteer with the forces massed at the Sufageen forward base in the Libyan desert.

Looking towards the horizon, where black smoke rose from the town of Bani Walid, he said: "He's buried in the desert. But nine-tenths of Libya is desert."

Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebels a year ago yesterday and buried somewhere under the rust-coloured sand. The location of the grave is a closely guarded secret. But in the same stretch of sand the same rebel forces - now wearing government uniforms - are preparing a final push into the last of his strongholds.

Bani Walid, 145 kilometres from Tripoli, was supposed to have fallen a year ago. Instead Gaddafi's former henchmen and officials have turned the town into a bastion.

The latest push yielded a significant arrest yesterday, with government forces capturing Gaddafi's ex-spokesman.

The urbane, English-speaking Moussa Ibrahim, who became the international face of the regime in its final months, was captured as he was trying to flee the town, according to the Libyan State News Agency.

The year since his death has been one of chaos and violence.

The former transitional authorities were unable to stitch together a country torn apart by mistrust and anger after 40 years of ruthless dictatorship. Savage battles continue to erupt across much of Libya, some the work of jihadists, who last month claimed the life of the US ambassador Chris Stevens.

Elections in July for the first truly democratic parliament in Libya's history were a success, but the result has so far been a failure - a parliament so riven with ideological, tribal and regional rivalries that, three months on, it cannot agree on a new government.

Ali was anxious to get back to his studies - a PhD in civil engineering at a university in El Paso, Texas - but said Bani Walid represented unfinished business. "People are tired," he said. "They really want an end to all this."

The government is, unsurprisingly, divided over Bani Walid. Government-appointed militias are conducting the offensive, with ministers sitting on their hands for fear of casualties.

Bani Walid is only one of a dozen security headaches. The Islamist militia blamed for the killing of Stevens in Benghazi is now holed up in the Green Mountains, but army commanders surrounding them say they cannot get orders to move in. The mountain town of Zintan, home of one of Libya's most powerful militia armies, continues to hold Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, refusing to hand him over either to the government or to the international criminal court. Meanwhile, Libya continues to disintegrate.

At the root of the problem is the inexperience of last year's revolutionaries. Gaddafi's dictatorship was so absolute the only organisation not controlled by the state was the Boy Scouts.

Libya today is not a single state but a collection of fiefdoms. Some work better than others.

Misrata, Libya's third city, is booming, and Tripoli, the capital, has seen regular police take the place of militias. But Stevens' killing shattered what remained of foreign business, with trade delegations staying away.

"It was 42 years of dictatorship. That is a long time," said Mohammed bin Tahar, a volunteer with the government forces, as he unloaded wounded soldiers from helicopters at Misrata's hospital. "It is not easy to change the way people think in just a year."