After Qaddafi, Tripoli is a violent city of armed fiefdoms

Tripoli has become a patchwork of armed fiefdoms, as wannabe power brokers backed by hometown militias battle with each other for the spoils of war.

Fathi Ali Ibrahim, close-up, with photos of his missing brothers Ibrahim Ali Ibrahim and Mahmoud Ali Ibrahim. Bradley Hope / The National. October 17, 2011
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TRIPOLI // After not hearing from her brother Mahmoud for several hours earlier this week, Amal Ali Ibrahim dialled his mobile phone number in dread.

He had gone to Tripoli's Gargour neighbourhood to help his brother Ibrahim. There was word of a turf war between forces of the interim government and members of a civilian militia from Zintan, a city in the Nafusa Mountains, 136 kilometres south-west of the capital.

The phone rang once. It rang again. Then before the last ring, the phone was finally picked up. Except it was not her brother.

Imitating the perfunctory tone of a telephone operator, the voice at the other end of the line said: "Sorry the person you are trying to call cannot be reached."

What came next was not matter-of-fact at all. The male voice chillingly added: "It's game over for your brothers."

As of yesterday, there was no word of the fate of his two brothers. A search of Tripoli's hospitals late last week came up empty.

Tripoli's top military official, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, has refused to hear the pleas of family members for help in finding the two men.

When Amal went to his office to request an investigation, she said an aide to Mr Belhaj told her that Tripoli's brigades did not want to get involved in mediating disputes. There was no question about going to the police - in the capital today, they do nothing but direct traffic.

The uncertain fate of Ibrahim and Mahmoud Ali Ibrahim - widely known as "Himi" - has become a cautionary tale in post-Qaddafi Libya.

The deposed leader is dead and its temporary leaders have declared the country "liberated." Yet the capital, in particular, has become a patchwork of armed fiefdoms, as wannabe power brokers backed by hometown militias made up of former clerks, students and engineers battle with each other and with natives of Tripoli for the spoils of war, a slice of the country's wealth and a share of political power - all of it, in their way of looking, up for grabs.

Kidnappings and disappearances are the new currency in the swelling conflict, with outright shootings a tactic of last resort. The creeping mayhem is fuelled by an infusion of weapons that has turned Tripoli into a virtual armoury.

While there is no definitive word on the fate of the Himi, their rivals hint at a violent end for a man and his more celebrated brother who courted violence and finally fell under its scythe.

A 35-year-old former special forces officer in the Libyan army, Himi joined the anti-Qaddafi forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) after he was freed from Abu Salim prison at the end of August. He had been jailed for eight years, allegedly for anti-Qaddafi activities.

Returning to his family's Shawkia neighbourhood, Himi gathered about 20 men into his own "khatiba" - a brigade or militia - to protect their homes and monitor any pro-Qaddafi activity. The family showed an ID card, signed and stamped by the NTC, that gave him permission to carry a weapon.

According to the family, Himi began to bristle under the repeated incursions of brigades into Tripoli to loot houses and, in his view, capriciously arrest its residents. The brigades from Zintan, who led the assault on the capital in August that eventually liberated the capital, were particularly abusive, he claimed.

"There is no law," said Jasmine Hassan, 32, a friend of Amal. "These brigades are going everywhere, doing whatever they want. You have to protect yourself."

For Himi, the final straw was on October 15, when he and members of his militia fought off an attempt by the Zintan brigades to arrest a neighbour. He and his men then went crosstown to continue the battle. His brother later joined him.

Sitting on a plush couch in a villa in the Regatta section, a seaside neighbourhood in Tripoli once preferred by expatriates and now controlled by the Zintan militia, a top officer in the militia resembles an old-fashioned warlord, dispensing rough justice, trafficking stolen goods and ruling his turf by the barrel of a gun.

When the question of Himi arose, Khalid Al Madani paused for a moment to savour it.

"You've come to ask about Himi," he finally said, toying with the words. "To put it simply, he's dead and it's better that way."

According to Mr Al Madani, Himi got off on the wrong foot by shooting one of his militia's fighters a week earlier. He was arrested and released, with a warning to stop his troublemaking.

However, when Himi ventured across Tripoli to avenge the attempted arrest of his neighbour and began firing at members of the Zintan militia from turf controlled by their rivals from the eastern city of Misurata, the time for warnings had passed.

"He shot first, so we defended ourselves," Mr Al Madani explained. "It's justified."

The militia chief had no explanation for what happened later that day. Several men dressed in camouflage fatigues who said they were from Zintan stormed Ali Ibrahim's home in Shawkia, spraying the walls with gunfire and demanding to know the whereabouts of Ibrahim's other brothers.

One was there. Fathi, a former naval officer, grabbed his AK-47 and waved it at the intruders, he said later.

They seized him and threw him out of a window from one of the house's upper floors. He plummeted onto the roof of the house next door, breaking both ankles.

Himi was found dead with several bullet wounds in his chest, alleges Mr Al Madani, before turning to two militiamen from a rival brigade who were demanding the return of a purloined KIA Sportage sport utility vehicle that they said the Zintan militia had, in turn, stolen from them.

The story of Himi has spread across the Libyan capital, repeated by civilians and militiamen alike as a cautionary tale

That annoys some. "It's like this guy is Tupac," said one fighter from Misurata, referring to Tupac Shakur, the now legendary American rapper and actor whose drive-by killing in Las Vegas in 1996 is thought to have been gang-related. "To me, he's not even Libyan. He was a criminal."

As they await some evidence that will persuade them of the brothers' untimely demise, the Ali Ibrahim family refuses to talk of them in the past tense.

They continue to believe that Himi and Ibrahim were clothed in anything but a mantle of virtue rather than merely the latest victims - and doubtless not the last - of the gang wars and militia-led factional fighting spreading across Tripoli.

"The only thing we are sure of is that Himi and Mahmoud are gone," Amal Ali Ibrahim said. "Is this the new Libya?"