TRIPOLI // One militia controls the airport. Others carve up neighbourhoods of the Libyan capital into fiefdoms. They clash in the streets, terrifying residents. They hold detainees in makeshift prisons where torture is said to be rampant.
As Libya yesterday marked the anniversary of the start of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi, hundreds of armed militias are the real power on the ground in the country, and the government that took the dictator's place is largely impotent, unable to rein in fighters or rebuild decimated institutions.
The revolutionary militias contend they are Libya's heroes - the ones who drove Qaddafi from power and who now keep security in the streets at a time when the police and military are all but nonexistent. They insist they will not give up their weapons to a government that is too weak, too corrupt and, they fear, too willing to let elements of the old dictatorship back into positions of power.
"I am fed up," said the commander of a militia of fighters from the western mountain town of Zintan who control Tripoli's airport. Al Mukhtar Al Akhdar says Libya's politicians unfairly blame the militias for the country's chaos while doing nothing to bring real change.
They believe "revolutionaries have no place in Libya now", said Mr Al Akhdar, who was once a tour company owner in Zintan until he took up arms against Qaddafi. "We paid a very heavy price in the revolution, not for the sake of a seat or authority, but for the sake of freedoms and rights."
As a result, Libya has been flipped upside down, from a country where all power was in the hands of one man, Qaddafi, to one where it has been broken up into hundreds of different hands, each making its own decisions. The National Transitional Council (NTC), which officially rules the country, is struggling to incorporate the militias into the military and police, while trying to get the economy back on its feet and reshape government ministries, courts and other institutions hollowed out under Qaddafi.
In one sign of the lack of control, the finance minister, Hassan Zaklam, admitted that millions of dollars from Qaddafi family assets returned to Libya by European countries - a potentially key source of revenue - have flowed right back out of Libya, stolen by corrupt officials and smuggled out in suitcases through the ports.
The militias, meanwhile, are accused of acting like vigilantes and armed gangs, fighting over turf and taking the law into their own hands. Many run private prisons, detaining criminals, suspected former regime members or simply people who run afoul of the fighters.
In a report on Wednesday, London-based Amnesty International said it found prisoners had been tortured or abused in all but one of 11 militia-run facilities the human-rights agency visited.
At least 12 detainees have died since September after torture, it said.
Last week, top militia commanders from the western half of the country gathered in Tripoli to form a united front to coordinate their activities and avoid fights. The front mirrors a separate bloc created in the east.
The fronts also present a political force to pressure the NTC and the cabinet it created.
NTC efforts to integrate the revolutionaries have already brought opposition.
A newly formed Defence Ministry "Warriors Committee" has so far registered 200,000 revolutionaries, who are given the option to join the army, police, intelligence or get help returning to society, such as a loan to start up a business or even travel abroad for studies.
But the committee has also registered members of Qaddafi's forces alongside the revolutionaries as part of an attempt at reconciliation, angering many in the militias.
"This is out of the question," said Farag Al Swehli, the commander of a Misurata militia operating in Tripoli. "You can't bring two people who fought against each other to sit next to each other ... There is only one way: revolutionaries are the army."
* Associated Press