Libyan militias turn to politics, a volatile mix

The New York Times reports: The militia leaders who have turned post-Qaddafi Libya into a patchwork of semiautonomous fiefs are now plunging into politics, raising fears that their armed brigades could undermine elections intended to lay the foundation of a new democracy.

The militia leader from Zintan who controls the airport here in the capital has exchanged his uniform for a suit and tie and now talks about running for office — with his 1,200 armed men at his back. The head of Tripoli’s military council is starting a political party, and the military council in Benghazi is preparing its own slate of candidates for local office.

Regional militias and the ruling Transitional National Council have already blocked the city of Bani Walid, once a bastion of support for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, from choosing its local government. Other militia leaders are volunteering their armed support as the military wings of newly formed parties.

Five months after Colonel Qaddafi’s death, Libyans are counting on the ritual of the ballot box to end four decades of rule by brute force. The brigades formed to fight Colonel Qaddafi, and many others that sprang up after the fact, have thwarted the consolidation of a new central authority and become a menace to security, trading deadly gunfire in the streets of the capital, detaining and torturing suspected Qaddafi loyalists, and last week even kidnapping two members of the Transitional National Council for two days.

Libya’s interim leaders say they hope an elected government will have the legitimacy to rein in those militias, and the country is rushing to hold votes. The two largest cities, Benghazi and Tripoli, plan to hold local elections by May, while the Transitional National Council has promised elections in June for an assembly that will govern as it writes a new constitution.

Without a national army or police force, though, many civilians worry that the militias could bully voters, suppress votes or otherwise dominate the process, leaving Libya mired in internecine violence, torn by regional tensions or — as a recent poll suggests many Libyans may now expect — vulnerable to the rise of a new strongman.

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