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Guns, bureaucracy thrive in post-Qaddafi Libya

Recruited Libyan soldiers, part of a new military battalion formed from the city of Tripoli to defend it after the departure of the rebels, take part in a military parade in Tripoli, Libya Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011. Families flowed out of Moammar Gadhafi's besieged hometown Tuesday, exhausted and battered by weeks of hiding from shelling and gunbattles with no meat or vegetables or electricity but unbowed in their deep distrust of the revolutionaries trying to crush this bastion of the old regime.
Recruited Libyan soldiers, part of a new military battalion formed from the city of Tripoli to defend it after the departure of the rebels, take part in a military parade in Tripoli, Libya Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011. AP Photo/Abdel Magid Al Fergany

TRIPOLI - The rush by Western governments to embrace Libya's new "interim" rulers is beginning to seem more than a little premature, not least because the Libyans themselves are in dangerous disarray.

At first glance, Tripoli looks exactly like a capital newly-liberated from years of dictatorship ought. Traffic flows, people smile a lot. Food stalls, impromptu theater and even bouncy castles for kids fill the square where once people gathered to cheer and chant for Colonel Muammar Qaddafi whether they liked it or not.

In an explosion of free expression that under his rule would have earned years in a dank prison, imaginatively gleeful graffiti extolling the revolution and mocking Qaddafi is sprayed on every wall and building.

Pleas from politicians and parents for gunmen to curtail the lethal version of free expression known as "happy fire" - loosing off clips of live ammunition into the air with a willful disregard for the laws of gravity - are being heeded. But that's where gun control ends, and therein lies the danger for the new government, and those who embrace it as representative.

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The city is awash with weapons, and the various militias which helped liberate it are all competing for a share of political power, which cynics might also define as a place at the trough when the oil money starts flowing again.

The head of the Tripoli Military Council, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, has demanded an end to what he called "the uncontrolled arms that have started to be seen clearly on the streets."

Belhaj, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who commands his own fighters, said he was authorized by the National Transitional Council (NTC), which is the de facto governing body, to curb the spread of heavy weapons. But another group, calling itself the Tripoli Revolutionist Council, (TRC) says it will collect weapons and provide security in the name of the NTC.

The Revolutionists pledged to co-operate with Belhaj, but at the same time accused his militia of carrying out arbitrary raids.

Meanwhile, the airport road and several other key locations are under the control of the Zintan Brigade from the western mountains. The brigade (the group prefers that title to the more accurate one "militia") has erected checkpoints, and taken over a former beach resort once used by the elite of the Qaddafi regime as its headquarters.

In an interview with CBS News, deputy commander Omar el-Beidi, said: "We do not recognize Abdul Hakim Belhaj, he wasn't appointed by anyone."

The deputy commander, an elfish individual with a chest-length beard, gleaming white smile and a stiff-pressed camouflage uniform ending at sandals, said he and Belhaj were "friends" who had spent eleven years together jail. Pressed as to what his group and Belhaj disagreed on, el-Obeidi said: "I don't want to answer that. It's not the right time." And then he laughed.

The Zintanis freely admit to be unwilling to hand over weapons, or a number of prisoners they hold pending "investigation" into whether or not they are Qaddafi loyalists.

Prisoners are picked up in house raids and at check points that proliferate around the city, especially at night.

By and large getting through the roadblocks is still a relatively benign process, but it is interesting to note that at every one the common phrase, uttered almost like a password is "Allah hu Akbar." God is great. That's not to say Islamic fundamentalism is rearing its head, but it is another indication that those who see the new Libya as more Islamic than secular are exerting their influence and power.

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In a minor example of that, a day after David Gerbi, a Libyan Jew who returned from exile, tried to clean up the synagogue that was closed and trashed when Qaddafi drove the last of the small Jewish community out, he was warned by that gunmen were coming from all over Libya to target him.

The leading armed group is the Misrata Brigade. Having held out for months against overwhelming odds, the Misratans are widely seen as the best organised and disciplined (former) rebels. And they want everyone to know just how much they sacrificed. Variations of the slogan "Returnees are Not Welcome", a reference to citizens who fled Misrata when it was under murderous siege, fills space between bullet holes and shrapnel scars on many walls.

Military Council chief Ibrahim Beit al-Mal told CBS News that Misrata has earned the ministries of defense, education and health.

Whatever role its leadership eventually fills in the central administration, Misrata gives every appearance of setting itself up as a kind of "city state."

Checkpoints constructed from shipping containers loom like triumphal arches forty feet high at the main entrances to the city. Outsiders are scrutinized carefully. A driver bringing equipment to us from Tripoli had to hand over his car papers on the way in, and collect them on the way out.

At one, the gunman on the driver's side smiled and said "welcome" when told we were a van full of foreign journalists, while his colleague on the other side of the car ordered us to pull over and be checked.

The Misrata command insists that journalists heading to cover the siege of Sirte, Qaddafi's hometown and one of the last redoubts of his loyalists, must have a pass. Getting one took four hours, presentation of passports and press cards to be copied and filed, and an emailed request for the permit from the London bureau chief.

If nothing else, bureaucracy has survived and security gangs reminiscent of Qaddafi's ubiquitous services are thriving in post-Qaddafi Libya.

The question is, on whose behalf?

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