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Abdel Hakim Belhaj, Libya Rebel Commander, Plays Down Islamist Past

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TRIPOLI, Libya — Abdel-Hakim Belhaj is an emerging hero of the Libyan uprising, the man who led the Tripoli Brigade that swept into the capital and captured the fortified compound that was Moammar Gadhafi's seat of power. He's also the former leader of an Islamic militant group who says he was tortured by CIA agents at a secret prison.

Belhaj, the rebels' commander in Tripoli, said Friday that the U.S. wrongly lumped him in with terrorists after Sept. 11, but that he holds no grudge. He said he shares the West's goal of a free Libya.

"We call and hope for a civil country that is ruled by the law which we were not allowed to enjoy under Gadhafi," he told The Associated Press. "The identity of the country will be left up to the people to choose."

He was not always so inclusive. In a 1996 statement he wrote as leader of the now-dissolved Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Belhaj wrote a statement vowing to fight "all the deviant groups that call for democracy or fight for the sake of it."

Though Belhaj and many others who resisted Gadhafi for decades considered their fight an Islamic cause, both secular and religious Libyans took part in the uprising that led to Gadhafi's downfall. Secular Libyans and the West are hoping Belhaj's actions match what he told the Libyan people minutes after arriving at Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound Aug. 23.

"You are facing a historic moment; a responsibility in front of God and the world, to protect and preserve the security of your country. To have justice, equality and welfare," he told Al-Jazeera. "We have to unite and join the ranks to build the country."

Belhaj has the support of the leader of the rebels' National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. Trading his army fatigues for a business suit, Belhaj accompanied Abdul-Jalil on a trip to Qatar, where on Monday they urged NATO representatives and Western officials to extend NATO operations to protect civilians from the remnants of Gadhafi's regime that continue to fight.

The next day in the rebels' temporary capital of Benghazi, Abdul-Jalil pointed to that conference as evidence that Belhaj is someone the council can trust. "He doesn't pose a threat to the world's safety," he said.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was not a monolithic entity, explained one U.S. official familiar with the group. Some branches have had connections with al-Qaida in Sudan, Afghanistan or Pakistan, but others dropped any relationship with al-Qaida entirely. Belhaj led a faction that disavowed al-Qaida and declared its commitment to establishing a democracy in Libya, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.

But U.S. officials are "watching to see whether or not this is for real, or just for show," the official said.

Belhaj, 45, is a soft-spoken man with a thick black beard. The father of two boys is shy when speaking to female journalists.

In an interview at his headquarters at the sprawling military airport in central Tripoli, Belhaj played down his Islamist ties.

"We never have and never will support what they call terrorism," he said.

Belhaj was a civil engineering student and Gadhafi opponent when he fled Libya and went to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. He later joined the U.S.-backed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, fighting alongside militants who would go on to form al-Qaida.

He said members of the terror group asked him to join, but he refused because he disagreed with its ideology of global jihad, or holy war, and wanted to focus on ridding Libya of Gadhafi.

Belhaj's 1996 statement revealed differences with al-Qaida on the issue of targeting civilians. Though he decried neighboring Algeria's regime as "infidel," he heavily criticized Islamic militants there for "massacres of civilians, women, children and elders."

Belhaj returned to Libya in the 1990s and led the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in fierce confrontations with Gadhafi's regime. He said that after fleeing Libya in the mid-1990s, he moved from country to country until 2004, when he was picked up and renditioned to Thailand, where he claims he was tortured by the CIA.

"It was a very bad treatment. The whole time I was blindfolded, I was hung from the wall, and they would beat me on my back, the way they tied me up was extremely painful and difficult to bear," he said.

CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood declined to comment on Belhaj's claims.

Belhaj said he believes his detention was in reaction to what he called the "tragic events of 9/11."

"The U.S. administration ... lumped a lot of Islamic groups and charities under the label of terrorist and it seems we also entered under this category," he said. "Now everyone is aware that our work was not of a terrorist nature."

As for those he accuses of torture, he said, "Revenge doesn't motivate me personally." But he added that he was considering court action.

Belhaj said that after being tortured, he was sent to Libya's Abu Salim prison, where Gadhafi's regime held many political prisoners.

The Libya government freed Belhaj and 33 other members of the Islamic Fighting Group in March 2010. He agreed to renounce violence as part of an initiative by Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam, who at the time was considered a reformist voice.

Soon after the uprising against Gadhafi broke out in mid-February, Belhaj began training fighters in the western mountains.

National Transitional Council Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga said that with Gadhafi's downfall, secular and religious Libyans "all share a common goal, a modern democratic civic state."

"Libyans will not allow anyone to replace Gadhafi's dictatorship with any other dictatorships," he said.

Islamic militants, however, have raised concerns within and outside Libya. The July assassination of NTC military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis was linked to an Islamic extremist group led by Obaida bin Jarrah, though motives are not known.

In the days after the rebels swept into Libya Aug. 20, Abdul-Jalil lashed out at Islamic extremists who he said tried to kill Gadhafi's son Mohammed, who had been under house arrest but ended up escaping. Abdul-Jalil threatened to resign if "extremist elements" didn't abide by the NTC's general policies.

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Michael reported from Cairo. AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier contributed from Washington.

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