"Forty years of tyranny has left Libya fractured and without strong civil institutions. The transition to a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people will be a difficult task."
Those were the words of President Barack Obama on March 28 2011, as he justified U.S. military action to prevent then-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from attacking Benghazi. But the "difficult" has become virtually impossible. Assassinations, kidnappings, blockades of oil refineries, rival militias battling on the streets, Islamist extremists setting up camps, and above all chronically weak government have all made Libya a dangerous place and one whose instability is already spilling across borders and into the Mediterranean.
What's going on?
A former officer in Gadhafi's army, Khalifa Haftar, has decided he's had enough of the chaos. Haftar -- who spent nearly two decades living in Virginia after falling out with Gadhafi -- returned to Libya in 2011 to join the rebels and became one of their top military figures.
Those who served under him describe him as a soldier's soldier, a professional with a good military brain. But he is also seen as an opportunist and his long absence -- spending 20 years in America -- has made him suspect to some.
Haftar is scathing of the transitional government's weakness in the face of radical Islamist militias in the east that are blamed for the assassinations of judges, police and military commanders. In February he appeared on national television -- in uniform -- and said the government should be replaced.
Last Friday, "troops" loyal to him (rather than to the Libyan government) began an offensive against powerful Islamist militia in Benghazi. Among their targets: Ansar al Sharia, who the White House holds responsible for taking part in the assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in the city in September 2012.
At least 70 people were killed in the clashes and many more wounded, according to hospital officials. The government, army and parliament all condemned Haftar, saying his actions amounted to a coup attempt. He responded: "There's no turning back," describing his offensive as "Operation Dignity."
Haftar appears to have the support of important tribes in eastern Libya as well as the commander of Libyan Special Forces in Benghazi, which have also been involved in clashes against Ansar al Sharia, and the air force base in Tobruk.