BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - A Libyan Islamist military commander who helped defend Benghazi against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces has called on the interim cabinet to resign because they are “remnants of the old regime”.
In an early sign of divisions among the victors in Libya’s six-month civil war, Ismail al-Salabi also took a swipe at secular groups he said were trying to give Islamists a bad name and create political strife that would only benefit Gaddafi.
Salabi leads the February 17 brigade which many Libyans credit with the successful last-ditch defence of Benghazi, where the uprising began on that date. Only later did NATO air power tip the balance in favour of the largely untrained rebel forces.
“The role of the executive committee is no longer required because they are remnants of the old regime. They should all resign, starting from the head of the pyramid all the way down,” Salabi told Reuters in the eastern city.
He was referring to the National Transitional Council’s de facto cabinet, which is headed by Mahmoud Jibril, who once headed Libya’s state economic think-tank under Gaddafi.
The 40-member NTC is a disparate mix of former officials in the Gaddafi administration, businessmen, academics, lawyers and exiles.
Salabi commands at least 3,000 fighters and reports to the interim interior ministry in Tripoli, according to an NTC spokesman. He accompanied NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil to a NATO meeting in Doha last month and said he fully supports him.
Abdel Jalil resigned as Gaddafi’s justice minister after violence was used against the protests that erupted on February 17.
Salabi once fought in Afghanistan but denies any links to Islamist groups outside Libya, such as the Taliban and al Qaeda. After the anti-Gaddafi revolt, his forces received arms from the Gulf Arab state of Qatar.
Without naming anyone, Salabi criticised those he said were trying to cast Libyan Islamist leaders as extremists.
“There are secularists who have their own private agenda and would like to portray us as extremist to alienate us from the international community and cause the division that will only serve the tyrant,” he said, referring to Gaddafi.
“Sometimes you wonder and ask, who are they serving?”
Salabi said he planned to send a memo to the NTC and its foreign allies to warn them to ensure that Libyan assets abroad, frozen to punish Gaddafi and now being released to the NTC, do not come back under control of the same officials who once handled them for Gaddafi.
“Lately, the (NTC) executive committee has done nothing but talk about unfreezing the assets,” he said.
“These were in the names of individuals in the old regime, so if you unfreeze the assets you unfreeze them in their favour. They belong to the Libyan people.”
Big powers agreed in Paris last week to unfreeze $15 billion in Libyan assets once controlled by Gaddafi or his aides. Libya’s total foreign assets are estimated at some $170 billion.
The influx of money will test the capacity and intentions of Libya’s new leaders, who are trying to restore order and public services in an oil-rich country with a glut of guns and forge a new brand of democratic politics after 42 years of one-man rule.
“We are asking the international community and NTC to be very, very careful,” said Salabi, a former businessman who spent time in jail in the Gaddafi era.
A senior NTC member said the unfrozen funds would be spent on education, security and medical care for landmine victims.
Salabi said his fighters, hardened by six months of combat with Gaddafi’s forces, would join any battle for the coastal city of Sirte, voicing scepticism that it would surrender.
But he said the February 17 brigade would respect deadlines set by the NTC, which has given more time for talks on a peaceful handover of the city that sits on an east-west coastal highway.
“With our in-depth knowledge of the hierarchy of the commanders of the forces at Sirte, we feel that unfortunately force will be the only means,” he said. “I do not believe that the tribal elders will carry weight with that leadership.”
Salabi said capturing southern towns still held by Gaddafi forces in Libya’s vast desert hinterland and securing the borders with Chad and Niger were formidable tasks.
“We still have Sabha and then Jufra,” he said of areas in the Sahara still not under the control of the new authorities.
“We have to then comb this massive area between Sirte, Sabha and Jufra. That will be very difficult as it’s quite extensive.”