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Libyan militias hold strong in country

A Libyan soldier checked a room stocked with weapons handed in by militia.

MOHAMMAD HANNON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A Libyan soldier checked a room stocked with weapons handed in by militia.

BENGHAZI, Libya — A month after the killing of the US 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 and egos.

Scores of disparate militias remain Libya’s only effective police force but have 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.

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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, such as patrolling borders.

“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 Khadafy. 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.

In Benghazi, independent brigades are using tapped telephones to hunt down suspected loyalists of Khadafy. Even the huge anti-militia protest here last month became cover for a group of armed men to attack one of the largest brigades, possibly for revenge.

‘‘Nothing changes,’’ shrugged Fathi al-Obeidi, the militia commander who led a contingent of fighters that helped rescue the Americans in the besieged diplomatic mission here last month.

Some Benghazi residents even say that the militia seen carrying out the attack, Ansar al-Shariah, did a better job than the paralytic government at providing security.

“They are very nice people,’’ said Ashraf Bujwary, 40, an administrator at a hospital where Ansar al-Shariah men had served as guards. Security has been ‘‘on shaky ground’’ since the militia fled, he said.

In some ways Ansar al-Shariah exemplifies the twilight world of post-Khadafy Libya, in which residents with looted weapons have organized themselves into regional, tribal, or Islamist brigades to keep the peace.

Wissam Bin Hamid, the 35-year-old leader of a major Benghazi militia, Libya Shield, said he considered Ansar al-Shariah more of an Islamic ‘‘social club’’ than a fighting brigade.

“Families come to them when they have a problem with a son,’’ he said, like drug use or bad behavior.

Organizers of the march against the militias nonetheless insisted they had achieved at least a subtle change. The big turnout showed that supporters of a civilian government were in fact ‘‘the force on the ground,’’ insisted Abu Janash Mohamed Abu Janash, 26, one of the organizers.

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