BENGHAZI, Libya — A month after the killing of the U.S. ambassador ignited a public outcry for civilian control of Libya’s fractious militias, that hope has been all but lost in a tangle of grudges, rivalries and egos.
Scores of disparate militias remain Libya’s only effective police force but have stubbornly resisted government control, a dynamic that is making it difficult for either the Libyan authorities or the United States to catch the attackers who killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Shocked by that assault, tens of thousands of people filled the streets last month to demand the dismantling of all the militias. But the country’s interim president, Mohamed Magariaf, warned them to back off as leaders of the largest brigades threatened to cut off the vital services they provide, like patrolling the borders and putting out fires.
“We feel hurt, we feel underappreciated," said Ismail el-Salabi, one of several brigade leaders who warned that public security had deteriorated because their forces had pulled back.
Taming the militias has been the threshold test of Libya’s attempt to build a democracy after four decades of dictatorship under Moammar Gadhafi. But how to bring them to heel while depending on them for security has eluded the weak transitional government, trapping Libya in a state of lawlessness.
The militias’ power is evident. In one of Tripoli’s finest hotels, the Waddan, about two dozen militiamen from the western city of Misrata continue to help themselves to rooms without paying, just as they have for more than a year.