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Libya’s Breakdown

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The dictator’s unseemly end should have been a warning. The 42-year rule of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi concluded with his capture and beating by an angry mob before he was killed. The 2011 uprising that led to his ouster unleashed hopes that the oil-rich country he’d turned into an international pariah would rebuild and lure investment. Instead battles between rival militias morphed into fighting between dueling governments. The turmoil devastated the country’s oil exports and helped fuel Europe’s refugee crisis, with Libyans fleeing and other asylum-seekers streaming through. The havoc also allowed militant groups, notably Islamic State, to take root. Libya’s competing governments agreed in principle to unite in late 2015, but the country remains split among a shifting patchwork of tribes, militias and Islamic State.

More than a year after the signing of a United Nations-brokered deal to form a unity government under parliamentarian Fayez al-Sarraj, the new administration remains largely ineffectual. Among its competitors are disgruntled Islamists who theoretically lost power with the establishment of the new government but still control parts of the capital. Numerous militias battle for territory in other parts of the country. And then there is the main rival to the UN-backed government: Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general who rose to prominence battling Ansar al-Shariah, an al-Qaeda offshoot blamed for the 2012 death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. Further fueling tensions is the Islamic State, which has attacked all sides. Militias backed by U.S. air strikes have diminished the area under its control and in December routed the group from its stronghold of Sirte. More than 5,800 people, by one count, have died in fighting in Libya and as many as 652,000 have been displaced. Libya’s vital oil industry is a focus of competing forces. Oil output had been improving, but clashes in March forced two of the country’s  biggest ports to shut down.