- The Washington Times
Thursday, June 6, 2019

President Trump’s “confusing” phone call to a Libyan insurgent leader has raised questions about U.S. policy and whether Washington truly stands behind the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq told The Washington Times on Thursday.

Mr. Maiteeq said on a visit to Washington that in the weeks since Mr. Trump’s phone call with Libyan militia leader Gen. Khalifa Haftar, U.S. lawmakers and State Department officials have privately told him that the administration still fully backs the so-called Government of National Accord (GNA). But Mr. Maiteeq said his government remains in the dark about what led Mr. Trump to praise Mr. Haftar during their surprise April conversation, and he flatly rejected the idea of negotiating with the military strongman or allowing him to share power in a new government.

Mr. Maiteeq’s comments underscore years of conflicted U.S. policy toward Libya and cast doubt on whether the Trump administration will firmly come down on one side of a civil war in which Mr. Haftar’s forces have launched a new offensive that has reached the outskirts of the capital. It’s imperative, the minister added, that Washington offer clarity or else the fighting could “go forever.”

“Why is the U.S. backing some military guy, 76 years old, who wants to rule our country?” Mr. Maiteeq said in an exclusive interview. “This is the question.”

Mr. Maiteeq stressed that the GNA forces have succeeded so far in holding off Mr. Haftar’s army in its latest assault. He insisted there’s widespread opposition to the idea of another military strongman ruling the country, despite the chaos that has enveloped the country since the overthrow of longtime leader Col Moammar Gadhafi eight years ago.

Libyans, he said, “don’t want to go back to military rulers again. We will not repeat the same history.”

Mr. Haftar was a close confidante to Gadhafi throughout the 1970s and 1980s, eventually becoming the late dictator’s military chief of staff. But he ultimately fell out of favor with Gadhafi and in 2011 he played a central role in the uprising that brought him down. Since then, Mr. Haftar’s militias, which have also had support from Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have battled Islamic terrorist groups throughout region — a campaign that earned him praise from Mr. Trump and apparently led to the April phone call.

“President Donald J. Trump spoke on April 15, 2019, with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to discuss ongoing counterterrorism efforts and the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya,” the White House said in a readout of the call. “The president recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”

Top administration officials quickly tried to clarify the administration’s position and stressed that while Washington supports Mr. Haftar’s anti-terror efforts it does not back his assault on Tripoli.

“What we’ve said before and what I do support is Field Marshal Haftar’s support in terms of his role in counterterrorism, but where we need Field Marshal Haftar’s support is in building democratic stability there in the region,” acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan said after the Trump phone call was made public.

But the official Libyan government has little appetite to work with Mr. Haftar, whose forces control much of the eastern half of the country and many of its most valuable oil fields.

Haftar cannot be trusted,” Mr. Maiteeq said. “Talking with Haftar is out of the question.”

He also stressed that the Libyan government doesn’t want arms, manpower or money from Washington.

‘We are not looking for financial support. We are not looking for military support,” he said. “We are looking for political, diplomatic [backing] from the United States.”

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