ZAWIYAH, Libya â€” Former Libyan military officers packed an auditorium here on Wednesday to listen to the man who has been appointed to lead the countryâ€™s army as the movement that deposed Moammar Gadhafi tries to consolidate its control.
But leading the discussion wasnâ€™t the man most Western news reporters have focused on in recent weeks, Hakim Belhaj, the leader of rebel forces in Tripoli and a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who was imprisoned by Gadhafi after the CIA captured him in Southeast Asia in 2004.
Instead, the man who spoke to the eager former officers was Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who defected from Gadhafiâ€™s army in 1987 and moved to the United States, where he lived in the Washington suburbs for decades before returning to Libya earlier this year.
Officers crowded into the auditorium to hear Hifterâ€™s presentation, many sitting in the aisles or standing wherever space was available. One of the officers, annoyed by a speaker who preceded Hifter, encouraged the speaker to hurry up.
â€œWe came to hear Gen. Hifter!â€ the man shouted, to loud applause.
In an interview after the meeting, Hifter said he had never met Belhaj, and there was an immediate tension between Hifterâ€™s warm welcome and Belhajâ€™s followers that recalled the tension that also pervaded the rebel military before its sudden string of victories that led to the fall of Tripoli three weeks ago. Then it was Hifter pitted against former Gadhafi Interior Minister Abdul-Fattah Younis, the rebel commander killed by his own men in late July.
It was unclear how Hifter would reconcile his force with the thousands of Libyans who picked up weapons to depose the dictator.
â€œThe Tripoli Military Council is responsible for security here until a national army is set up,â€ said Anis al Sharif, Belhajâ€™s spokesman.