Libya rebel leader plays down Islamist past

Abdel Hakim Belhaj speaks during a meeting of chiefs of staff of countries militarily involved in Libya, in Doha, Qatar, August 29, 2011. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images

TRIPOLI, Libya — The rebels' Tripoli military commander, a former leader of an Islamic militant group that sent fighters to Iraq and Afghanistan, insisted Friday that the new Libya will shun extremism and won't become a breeding ground for terrorism.

The commander, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, said he was detained in 2004 in Malaysia and sent to a secret prison in Thailand where he was tortured by CIA agents. Then he was sent to Libya and jailed for seven years by Muammar Qaddafi's regime.

But Belhaj, 45, played down his Islamist past, seeking to allay concerns about his emergence as a prominent figure in the Western-backed Libyan opposition movement.

He insisted he holds no grudges against the West because of the shared goal of ousting Qaddafi.

"Revenge doesn't motivate me personally," he told The Associated Press in an interview at his headquarters at the sprawling military airport in central Tripoli.

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Belhaj was a leader in the now dissolved Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was deemed a terror group by the U.S. But he said he refused to join Al Qaeda because he disagreed with its ideology of global jihad, or holy war, and wanted to focus on ridding Libya of Qaddafi.

He said he never agreed with al Qaeda's ideology of global jihad, or holy war, but only wanted to focus on ridding Libya of Qaddafi.

He lauded the West for supporting the rebels, saying that "the U.N. Security Council and the whole world stood by us in the cause and have helped us to get rid of Qaddafi."

Qaddafi, in courting the West in recent years, has insisted al Qaeda would gain influence in Libya unless he remained in power.

Belhaj dismissed those concerns.

"We never have and never will support what they call terrorism," he said.

"Libya is a moderate Muslim country," he said. "We are a simple people with a simple cultural makeup and we have never had extremist ideas. And if there ever were any they were an exception."

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