Photographer: Ghaith Shennib/Bloomberg

One War Nears an End in Libya. Battle Scars May Prevent Another

Misratan-led fighters are on the verge of defeating Islamic State. What happens next?

Standing next to a tank, Libyan commander Abdul Hadi Lahwal picks up his walkie-talkie and speaks with snipers positioned in a disused school on the frontline of the battle against Islamic State. He was attempting to recover the bodies of two of his men, killed the day before.

The “liberation of Sirte has cost a lot,” Lahwal, a former merchant, said. “Hands and legs have been amputated, women widowed, children have become orphans. We must not let the future of our country slip from our hands as we did in 2011.”

Fighters in a Misratan-led coalition rest near Neighborhood 3 on Sept. 5, 2016. Forces under the unity government have been battling to oust Islamic State fighters in Sirte since May.
Fighters in a Misratan-led coalition rest near Neighborhood 3 on Sept. 5, 2016. Forces under the unity government have been battling to oust Islamic State fighters in Sirte since May.
Photographer: Ghaith Shennib/Bloomberg

The battle to oust the jihadist group from its last major stronghold in the North African nation looks to be nearing the end, with the militants holed up in two small areas in Sirte. When the guns fall silent, the victory will largely belong to militias from Misrata, whose predecessors ended the Libyan uprising five years ago by tracking down Muammar Qaddafi as he hid in a culvert. More than five years on, they are now fighting under the auspices of the United Nations-backed unity government seeking to stabilize the holder of Africa’s largest oil reserves.

With the losses mostly theirs, the price the Misratans have paid has curbed their enthusiasm for further conflict, according to interviews with local political leaders, residents and fighters from the city. That shift may be tested, though, after Khalifa Haftar -- the commander who dominates Libya’s east, opposes the unity government and is a foe to many Misratans -- at the weekend took over ports in the vital oil crescent without losing a fighter.

‘Easier to Fight’

Haftar’s move has roiled fragile alliances in Libya, where fighting has fractured the country’s major power structures. The resulting instability fed Europe’s migrant crisis, and enabled Islamic State to expand its self-declared caliphate based in Syria and Iraq along the Mediterranean.

Lying on the coast midway between Tripoli and Sirte, Misrata has emerged as a key player in the post-Qaddafi era. The reaction of its people and leaders to Haftar’s consolidation of power in the east will help decide the course of the conflict.

A Libyan national flag flies over Tripoli Street in Misrata, Libya.
A Libyan national flag flies over Tripoli Street in Misrata, Libya.
Photographer: Ghaith Shennib/Bloomberg

“Misrata has lived through revolution, retaliation and domination, then war again -- and now reconciliation,” said Zeid Ragas, a Libyan political commentator. And yet, leaders who in the past have held sway over the city “can’t be guaranteed not to use the euphoria of victory over Islamic State to drag Misratan forces into other wars. It’s much easier to fight for oil than to negotiate for it.”

Dozens of residents, former rebels and officials interviewed in the city said, while the fight against Islamic State was an existential battle against terrorism, they want to avoid another war.

Daily Funerals

Of the 510 Libyans who have died combating the jihadists in Sirte, about 85 percent were from Misrata, according to Abdul Aziz Essa, spokesman for the city’s general hospital. The dead include several prominent civilians who took up arms in the absence of a national army, such as Mohamed Swalim, labor minister in the first post-Qaddafi administration, and Abdul Rahman al-Kissa, who headed the country’s bar association.

Most militia members, though, are young -- too young to have even played a role in removing the old regime.

Members of the Misrata-led 604 Brigade operate out of an abandoned school on the frontlines in the battle against Islamic State in Sirte.
Members of the Misrata-led 604 Brigade operate out of an abandoned school on the frontlines in the battle against Islamic State in Sirte.
Photographer: Ghaith Shennib/Bloomberg

“Some were born in 2000, huge numbers of the casualties are under 20,” said Mohamed al-Shawsh, head of the field hospital in Sirte. “We share the same enemy as the whole country, so why is it that all the suffering and burden is on my city?”

Funerals of fighters are held almost daily in Misrata. Yet in other ways the city is a rare thing in today’s Libya: It’s well stocked with both weapons and fighters, but there’s little armed presence in the streets and gunfire is seldom heard. Local authorities are working, down to the level of issuing new vehicle registration plates. Traffic lights function most of the time, and there aren’t hours-long queues to withdraw cash from banks.

`Good at Fighting'

The Sirte conflict is the fifth Misrata has been involved in since the 2011 uprising. The city’s fighters allied with the Libya Dawn movement that seized large parts of the capital in 2014 after an Islamist-Misratan coalition suffered electoral defeat. When it later refused to cede power to the internationally-recognized government, Libya effectively split, with rival power centers in the west and east.

Destroyed buildings and vehicles line a street in Sirte.
Destroyed buildings and vehicles line a street in Sirte.
Photographer: Ghaith Shennib/Bloomberg

In that year, Libya Dawn forces launched “Operation Sunrise” to wrest oil terminals from Petroleum Facilities Guard leader Ibrahim Jadran, then allied to the eastern administration. Along with a fire that raged for nine days, the fighting damaged installations and slashed oil production -- on whose revenues Libya depends -- to about a fifth of pre-war levels of 1.6 million barrels per day.

Haftar ousted him from his role securing the ports on Sunday, a move welcomed by many Libyans. 

“Politics in Libya is built on alliances, but Misrata lost most of its due to the conflicts that it got into, one after the other,” said Mahmoud Mlouda, a university lecturer in Misrata. “Misratans were always good at fighting, not politics.”

‘Dying Nation’

When combatants return home, “you have two options to avoid trouble -- you either reward them or direct them to another enemy to keep them busy,” Mlouda said. “Unfortunately, this is what has happened in Libya.”

A poster showing a peace dove adorns a building on Tripoli Street in Misrata, Libya.
A poster showing a peace dove adorns a building on Tripoli Street in Misrata, Libya.
Photographer: Ghaith Shennib/Bloomberg

In downtown Misrata last week, Emad Shuaib, 38, was somber as he stirred sugar into black coffee and discussed the battle in Sirte with friends, some of whom had just returned from the frontlines.

“I fought in Libya Dawn and I really regret it,” Shuaib said. “But this war is a must and if we don’t fight, the state will never be stabilized. We’re rescuing a nation dying from terrorism.”

Responding to Haftar’s seizure of the ports of Es Sider, Ras Lanuf and Zueitina, -- Haftar has said he’ll hand the facilities to the National Oil Co. -- UN-backed unity Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj called on all sides to “halt provocative actions” and agree to talks, which would include potentially explosive issues like the sharing of oil revenues.

“I am not prepared to rule one part of Libya, nor to lead a war against another part,” he said.

Misrata municipal council spokesman Osama Badi said on Wednesday the city supports Serraj’s administration. “Misrata contains different political orientations,” he added. “We can’t speak on behalf of them all.”

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