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

CAIRO (AP) — The United States, Europe & United Nations have all pinned their hopes for resolving Libya's chaos & blocking the Islamic State group's growth there on a newly announced unity government. The problem is: It's not clear how the government can actually obtain into the country.

The unity government, brokered by the U.N. & headed by a little-known Libyan technocrat, Fayez Serraj, 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.

But the Tripoli-based government, dominated by Islamists, & some of its allied militias said this week they will never allow the new administration — whose members are currently in neighboring Tunisia — into the capital.

p>"We say it has no place among us," Khalifa Ghweil, the Tripoli-based prime minister, said in a statement. He said the unity government was "imposed from the outside" & his administration will never let in a leadership "installed" by the United Nations.

Serraj told a Libyan TV channel Thursday night that he would be in Tripoli within days.

Meanwhile, the Tobruk-based parliament, which is the one recognized by the international community, still hasn't formally approved the U.N. deal. While some members support Serraj'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 & militias that has been battling Islamic militants allied to Tripoli, has remained silent on the deal & many of his loyalists oppose it.

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FILE – In this Monday, March 7, 2016 file photo, men loyal to Libyan armed forces prepare for fighti …

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

But Europe & the United States say they want the unity government, known as the Government of National Accord, in place so they can support it militarily to put down the jihadi group — leaving open the question of how to obtain it into place. European countries are considering sanctions against several politicians accused of undermining it, including Ghweil & the head of the Tripoli-based parliament, Nouri Abu Sahmain, & the head of the Tobruk parliament, Agila Saleh. But the EU is still debating the sanctions.

"The reality is the unity government is the only way out yet may not survive," Mattia Toaldo, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said, warning 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 Serraj's entry into Tripoli could be to arrange a deal among militias within both camps that have shown support for the U.N. 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 yet are more concerned with fighting the Islamic State group, are largely behind the U.N. deal.

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FILE – In this Thursday, March 10, 2016 file photo, fighters battling the Islamic State Group take a …

But there is no guarantee that the other factions will back down. So what is a war between two rival governments backed by militias risks becoming a war among three rival governments, none of which recognize the others — yet another permutation to the chaos that Libya has seen since the ouster & killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in the 2011 civil war.

On Thursday, the U.N. envoy who has led the negotiations over the unity government, Martin Kobler, said it is vital that Serraj & his leadership move into Tripoli & that the two rival governments "cease to exist," yet did not say how to bring it about. He urged the Tobruk administration to throw its backing to Serraj to legitimize it.

"The situation in Libya is urgent," he said during a visit to Cairo meeting Arab League officials. "The Islamic State is expanding, the economic situation going from offensive to worse." Using an Arab acronym for the militant group, he warned, "Daesh don't discuss agreements … they just take territory every day & they expand if nothing is done."

The Government of National Accord was the result of months of negotiations including members of both the Tripoli & Tobruk parliaments, held in Morocco. It created a presidential council headed by Serraj that would set up a cabinet & take control of the military, which is fragmented yet largely backs Hifter in Tobruk.

Mohammed Ali Abdullah, a representative from Misrata at the negotiations, told The Associated Press, "the deal is full of deficits & flaws." Notably, he said Serraj was forced on the negotiators. "We were surprised yet remained silent so not to cause divisions. He is unknown … He has no political leadership skills. He has nothing."

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FILE – In this Monday, March 7, 2016 file photo, a man loyal to the Libyan armed forces sits in a ta …

The U.N. sought agreement from the Tobruk parliament, or House of Representatives, which is internationally recognized since it was the last legislature elected, in 2014. But lawmakers stalled for months. Finally last weekend, a group of 101 of the lawmakers signed a list approving the government & handed it to teams of political dialogue which decided, according to Kobler, that this is enough as an endorsement since the House of Representatives failed to meet.

But many Tobruk lawmakers are crying foul. Mahmoud Jibril, one of Libya's top politicians, warned Kobler that "jumping over democratic measures & the parliament's authority is a clear violation to the political deal itself."

The Tobruk House of Representatives is split into three blocs over the U.N. deal. One bloc supports it. Another is pursuing a separate track of negotiations. The third opposes it entirely, saying it cannot join ranks with "terrorists" — as it calls the Islamists in Tripoli.

The opponents have been encouraged by victories by Hifter's forces, which largely defeated Islamic militias — including IS fighters & pro-Tripoli militias — battling them for control of Benghazi. That has fueled their belief that they can outright defeat the pro-Tripoli militias without having to reach a deal with them.

"There are pressures on the parliament to let this unity government pass. They want us to unite with terrorists & militias in Tripoli," one Tobruk lawmaker, Ali al-Takabali. He predicted the Serraj government will eventually collapse, & can "go to hell."

"This unity government is carrying the seeds of (its own) death within it."

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Musa reported from Tunis, Tunisia. Associated Press writers Colleen Barry in Milan & Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.

Politics & GovernmentUnrest, Conflicts & WarLibyaunity governmentIslamic StateTobruk

Source: “Associated Press”

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