TUNIS (Reuters) - When Khalifa Haftar flew to Tunis in September, the veteran commander and possible future leader of Libya brought masked troops armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers in a show of force that drew censure from U.N. experts.
In France, Italy and Tunisia, he also shook hands with ministers and presidents in gilded reception rooms, projecting a different image: that of a man preparing to convert the military gains of his Libyan National Army (LNA) into civilian power.
Haftar casts himself as the person who can bring stability to Libya after years of conflict, ridding the OPEC member of Islamist militants and reining in migrant smuggling to Europe.
Some of those who have worked with him describe him as a divisive military man with little time for politics, who could try to reinstate authoritarian rule and bring more violence to a country where armed groups jealously guard local fiefdoms.
A former ally of Muammar Gaddafi, Haftar, 75, returned to Libya seven years ago from the United States, to join the Nato-backed revolution that ended four decades of one-man rule.
After a protracted military campaign in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, he has promised to “liberate” the capital Tripoli, split from the east since 2014. Elections, which the United Nations says could be organised by the end of the year despite major obstacles, may provide another route to power.
Haftar seems to be hedging his bets. The LNA, he said last month, has “sleeper cells” it could activate to take full control of Libya while prioritising a political solution to avoid bloodshed.
“But our patience has limits”, he said in the interview published in French magazine Jeune Afrique, before adding that Libya was not “ripe for democracy”.
Mohamed Buisier, a U.S.-based engineer who served as an advisor to Haftar from 2014-2016 before falling out with him, said Haftar wanted absolute power.
“He wants to get to one of the big palaces in Tripoli and rule Libya - that is it,” he said.
Haftar’s office said he did not immediately have time for an interview.
Among the officers who supported Gaddafi when he seized power from King Idris in 1969, Haftar was disowned by Gaddafi after he was captured leading Libyan forces in Chad in 1987.
He settled outside Washington D.C. in Virginia and returned to Libya only as the revolt against Gaddafi was gathering pace.
“He was there at the beginning with Gaddafi … he was abandoned by Gaddafi, he left Libya for decades. He would like to see the arc of history corrected,” said Jonathan Winer, a former U.S. special envoy to Libya who met Haftar in 2016.
After Gaddafi was overthrown and eventually killed, Haftar dropped from view, resurfacing in February 2014 with a televised statement pledging to rescue a country mired in instability.
In May that year, he launched “Operation Dignity” in Benghazi, merging his irregular forces with army troops and pitting himself against both Islamist militants whom he blamed for a wave of bombings and assassinations in the port city, and an armed alliance that took control of Tripoli soon after.
An internationally recognised parliament relocated to eastern Libya and appointed Haftar army chief in 2015, but it was not until early 2016, amid reports of support from foreign states including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, that Haftar started gaining the upper hand in his Benghazi campaign.
Haftar has rejected the United Nations-backed transitional Government of National Accord (GNA) set up in Tripoli in 2016 as fighting raged in Benghazi, dismissing it as unelected and beholden to the capital’s militias.
“I’m reaching out to General Haftar once every week to ask him for a meeting,” former U.N. Libya envoy Martin Kobler said in an interview in July 2016. “But it takes two to dance a tango.”
The GNA stalled amid political splits and Haftar gained ground from the east, seizing and reopening several key oil ports southeast of Benghazi in September 2016, and replacing elected mayors with military appointees.
By 2017, his international profile was firmly on the rise.
In January he was given a tour of a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean.
In July, two weeks after appearing on TV in a starched white uniform to declare victory in Benghazi, newly elected President Emmanuel Macron hosted him in Paris alongside GNA head Fayez Seraj. Senior Western officials began regular visits to Haftar’s base at Rajma, near Benghazi.
Oil output, most of it from fields under LNA control where foreign firms including Hess Corp, Marathon Oil Corp, ConocoPhillips, Eni, OMV, and Wintershall have holdings, rose above 1 million barrels per day (bpd).
Giant posters of Haftar in Benghazi declared: “I promised and I delivered.” Supporters launched a petition calling on Haftar, now a field marshal, to take national power, and claimed to have gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures.
On the ground, however, things were more complicated.
The oil ports were briefly retaken by Haftar’s rivals and fighting in Benghazi dragged on for months after the victory declaration.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a special forces commander attached to the LNA, for allegedly overseeing the summary execution of several dozen prisoners.
Derna, about 250 km (155 miles) northeast, remains under the control of a coalition of Islamists and other local fighters, despite LNA encirclement and air raids.
Rivalries have surfaced between the special forces, mainstream army units, local youths who fought alongside the LNA, and ultraconservative Salafist brigades that have gained power and influence under Haftar, said Mohamed Eljarh, an analyst based in eastern Libya.
“These people don’t see eye to eye,” he said. “After Benghazi has been declared liberated, basically the common enemy has gone. So now, these differences are coming alive.”
Foreign support for Haftar has also wavered, Western diplomats say. Russia has printed money for him and hosted him in Moscow, but has also built ties with his rivals in western Libya with an eye on energy and arms contracts lost in 2011.
U.N. monitors said in a confidential report seen by Reuters that Haftar’s display of armed muscle in Tunis amounted “a serious violation of the arms embargo” on Libya.
Western officials say he has the formality of Soviet-trained officers of his generation and question his engagement with politics.
“His script is basically security comes first, politics comes later,” said one foreign visitor who was received several times by Haftar, and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some diplomats suggest the promise of national polls could contain Haftar, even though with a lack of a unifying candidate or updated election laws, it is far from clear how they can be held. But they also doubt his commitment to civilian rule.
“He is not a convinced democrat,” said one foreign envoy, adding that Haftar had told him that he intended to run. “He accepts elections as an acceptable way to do it, provided he will be the winner.”
Buisier said Haftar has surrounded himself with ultra-loyal advisors and relatives, including two of his sons, Saddam and Khaled, who were given military ranks and a brigade to command.
Some of the commander’s inner circle accused Busier of supporting Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the late leader’s most prominent son, whose whereabouts are unclear but is viewed by Haftar as a potential rival, the former advisor said.
Several other Haftar allies have defected, including a former spokesman and the GNA’s defence minister.
Ahmed al-Mismari, the LNA’s spokesman, said 90 percent of the force was made up of regular soldiers, denied reports that it was dependent on foreign support, and asserted that the armed escort brought to Tunis was for personal protection and was cleared with Tunisian authorities.
The LNA supported elections, and had declared its “full readiness to secure them”, he said.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York; editing by Philippa Fletcher