BENGHAZI, Libya — The Libyan rebel leadership is showing signs of strain and disarray six months into its fight to oust Moammar Gadhafi.
Tensions over the killing of the opposition’s military commander, Abdel-Fattah Younis, possibly by other rebels, spurred the leaders to sack their own Cabinet late Monday and on Tuesday order the movement’s various armed factions to integrate in hopes of imposing some order.
“One good thing that could come of Younis’ assassination is that the rebels will try to get the groups together and develop a coherent military force,” said Libya expert Ronald Bruce St John. “Then they will have a better chance to overthrow Gadhafi.”
The United States welcomed the rebels’ reorganization. The State Department said it was a sign the national council, which the U.S. and others recognize as Libya’s legitimate government, is using Younis’ slaying as an opportunity for “reflection” and “renewal” by firing its executive committee.
The Libyan revolt began in mid-February, with the rebels quickly wresting control of much of the eastern half of the country, as well as pockets in the west. But six months on, the conflict has settled into a stalemate.
The rebels have failed to budge the front lines in the east since April, and have made only minor gains from the pockets they control in the western Nafusa mountains and the port city of Misrata. Gadhafi, meanwhile, continues to control the rest of the west from his stronghold in Tripoli, despite continued NATO airstrikes.
Then in late June, rebel military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis was killed outside Benghazi, deeply shaking the opposition’s leadership, known as the National Transitional Council, as well as their Western allies, who have heavily backed them.
It also rattled a public in rebel held areas that has already grown frustrated by a lack of progress on the battlefield.
Wary of its slipping support, the National Transitional Council moved this week to restore public confidence and reassert its authority over the armed forces in the wake of the Younis slaying. Both moves appear aimed at diffusing tensions over the killing. If they succeed, it may mean a quicker advance to toppling the Gadhafi regime.
On the military front, national council chief Mustafa Abdel-Jalil on Tuesday ordered all fighters to be incorporated into the national liberation army individually, not as a unit.
Numerous groups of armed volunteers operate in eastern Libya. Some — but not all — of these armed battalions have been collected under an umbrella group called the Revolutionary Brigades recognized by the national council alongside the National Army, which is made up of volunteers and ex-military personnel.
Among the Revolutionary Brigades is the Islamist group, Obaida bin Jarrah, which has been blamed for Younis’ death.
It was not immediately clear whether the numerous armed factions would heed the call to join the regular rebel army.
On the political front, the council on Monday dismissed the movement’s executive committee — essentially a government Cabinet — after an investigation indicated that “administrative mistakes” led to Younis’ killing.
Both moves reflect just how deeply the Younis killing shook the rebel camp.
The military chief’s body was found two weeks ago, dumped outside Benghazi, along with the bodies of two colonels who were his top aides. They had been shot and their bodies burned.
Younis was Gadhafi’s interior minister until he defected to the rebellion early in the uprising, bringing his forces into the opposition ranks. His move raised hopes among rebels and Western allies that the uprising could succeed in forcing Gadhafi from power. But some rebels remained deeply suspicious that he retained loyalties to Libyan dictator.
According to an officer with the rebels’ internal security forces — the official security force of the national council — who spoke with The Associated Press, the council ordered Younis’ arrest after a letter surfaced connecting the commander to Gadhafi. But he suggested the killing had not been authorized by the council and was instead an act of vengeance by rebels.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said Younis was brought back to the Benghazi area and held at a military compound when he was summoned to the Defense Ministry for questioning.
As they left the compound, two men from the security team escorting the detainees opened fire on Younis from their car with automatic weapons, said the officer, who was at the compound and saw the shooting. He said the two men were members of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade and shouted that Younis was a traitor who killed their father in Darna, an eastern town that was once a stronghold of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
“People want to know why he was arrested, why was the warrant signed. ... Someone has to be held responsible and pay the price,” said Faraj Najem, a London-based Libyan analyst.
France, meanwhile, urged Libya’s opposition to form a new governing committee quickly.
French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Christine Fages told an online briefing Monday, “we hope a new executive bureau can be quickly designated” to work with the international contact group on plans for Libya’s political future.