by Ulf Laessing, Reuters
22 May 2015, SIRTE (TSR-Reuters): Standing guard at his front-line post, Libyan soldier Mohammad Abu Shager can see where ISIS militants are holed up with their heavy weaponry less than a kilometer away.
The militants have effectively taken over former dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s home city of Sirte as they exploit a civil war between two rival governments to expand in North Africa.
“Every night they open fire on us,” said Abu Shebar, who with comrades on Sirte’s western outskirts holds the last position of troops belonging to one of the two warring Libyan governments, the General National Congress, which controls the capital Tripoli and most of the west of the country.
“They are only active at night,” he said, pointing to the militants’ position in a house just down the road blocked by sandbags.
He sleeps in a shed next to his firing positions where used tank shells litter the ground.
Libya, which has descended into near anarchy since NATO warplanes helped rebels overthrow Gadhafi in a 2011 civil war, is now the third-biggest stronghold for ISIS, which declared a caliphate to rule over all Muslims from territory it holds in Syria and Iraq.
ISIS fighters became a major force last year in Derna, a jihadi bastion in Libya’s east, and quickly spread to the biggest eastern city Benghazi, where they have conducted suicide bombings on streets divided among armed factions.
By occupying Sirte over the past four months they have claimed a major city in the center of the country, astride the coastal highway that links the east and west. They made their presence known to the world in February by kidnapping and beheading more than 20 Egyptian Christian oil workers on a beach and posting video on the Internet.
In Libya, the group deploys locally recruited fighters, led by envoys sent from Syria and Iraq. Those include Libyans returned from fighting on Syrian and Iraqi front lines, steeped in the group’s ethos of extreme violence and permanent warfare between those it considers true Sunnis and all others.
Their gains in Libya, just across the sea from Italy, are worrying European governments and North African neighbors. But so far Western countries, which are bombing ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq, have steered clear of that sort of intervention in Libya.
ISIS’ expansion in Libya has been helped by a breakdown of state authority. Neither of Libya’s two warring governments exercises much formal control of territory. Both field troops that call themselves armies but are in fact loose alliances of former rebels who toppled Gadhafi, refused to disarm, and have since fallen out along tribal, political and regional lines.
Both governments pay fighters with cash from Libya’s oil exports, giving them funds and an incentive to fuel the war indefinitely.
ISIS opposes both governments, exploiting local resentments and power vacuums. It took Sirte from the government based in Tripoli, which draws its support mainly from fighters from the western city of Misrata, who emerged as some of the most powerful in the country after Gadhafi’s fall.
ISIS gunmen arrived in the area in pickup trucks in February when the Misrata forces were busy 150 kilometers to the east trying to wrestle away Libya’s biggest oil port, Es Sidra, from forces backing the other government, now based in the east.
With Misrata troops having spread out on frontlines stretching 1,000 kilometers, militants swiftly seized a Sirte hospital, a university, the grand Ouagadougou hall where Gadhafi once hosted African leaders and a radio station broadcasting Quranic verses.
When the Misratis returned in force to Sirte in March after failing to seize Es Sidra, ISIS had already set up checkpoints. The jihadis have since steadily widened their control.
The last checkpoint held by the Misratis is now about a kilometer further from the city center than it was when Reuters visited two months ago.
“They are now shelling the power station so we’ve moved back the last checkpoint for civilians,” said Yuhami Ahmad, a commander of the Misrata troops based on the western outskirts near a plant that supplies the area with electricity.
The Misrata forces have surrounded Sirte and are diverting traffic on the coastal road to the desert hinterland. Anti-aircraft guns guard checkpoints. Sirte residents who pass between the two front lines to get gasoline in suburbs under control of the Misrata forces describe hardship inside a city no longer served by the state oil firm.
“We only have power sometimes,” said the owner of a cafe at a gas station who gave his name as Salah.
Another resident fetched water in a closed restaurant usedsaid he had no water at home.
The Misrata forces compare the standoff to 2011, when Gadhafi made his last stand in Sirte while they besieged and shelled it. Gadhafi was eventually captured and lynched by rebels outside Sirte after trying to escape on the same road again blockaded by the Misratis.
Yuhami, the Misrata commander near the power plant, said their new opponent ISIS was strong because of the backing of Gadhafi loyalists and foreigners.
“They have been joined by foreigners, Sudanese, Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis,” he said, standing in front of Toyota truck, the standard vehicle of his troops. “They have 106s,” he said, referring to large-caliber guns.
He and several of his men put the number of ISIS militants in Sirte at more than 100.
So far, ISIS has not gained territory as quickly in Libya as it did inIraq and Syria, where it portrays itself as defenders of Sunni Islam in sectarian wars against governments led by Shiites.
Libyans are overwhelmingly Sunni, and their divisions tend to be tribal and regional rather than sectarian. ISIS fighters have had to compete with rival Libyan militant groups who resent the presence of outsiders.
But Sirte, where homes were looted by Misrata rebels after Gadhafi’s fall, is fertile ground. Many residents feel they were losers in the revolution and harbor resentment toward the Misrata fighters.
“Before the revolution life was so much better. We had electricity, security. Schools were always open,” said Mohammad Ali, a student living in a suburb near the power plant.
“They [ISIS] are fine. They leave you alone unless you fight them,” he said.
He said he had seen Tunisians and other foreigners joining the group, and also Gadhafi loyalists. That would be a similar pattern to Iraq, where former officers from secular dictator Saddam Hussein’s army have supported ISIS.
The group has managed to stage suicide bombings on Misrata forces near the power plant and at highway checkpoints, including one on the outskirts of Misrata which frightened residents.
“We are worried about ISIS,” said Ali al-Mahdy, a bookshop owner in central Misrata. “We need to fight them.”