TRIPOLI, Libya — The armed militias that overthrew the regime of Moammar Gadhafi are now demanding a voice in the formation of Libya's new interim government.
Several thousand fighters armed with automatic weapons and accompanied by trucks mounted with mortars and heavy machine guns rallied late Thursday at Tripoli's horse track, many of them saying they must approve of the new government.
It was a significant show of strength by the fighters days before the newly appointed prime minister, Abdurrahim el-Keib, announces his Cabinet early next week.
El-Keib and the National Transitional Council, which has ruled since Gadhafi's fall in August, have struggled with the issue of how to rein in the dozens of revolutionary militias that arose during the months-long uprising against Gadhafi, which quickly turned into an outright civil war.
The militias are made up of civilians who took up arms and organized themselves locally – many of the groups are named after the cities or regions where they were formed. They greatly outnumber the units from Gadhafi's military that defected and joined the uprising.
The NTC has said it is working on building up the national army, integrating some of the militias and disarming the rest. But el-Keib acknowledged that process could take months and could not be done by force. In the meantime, militias continue to man checkpoints and patrol streets, asserting their power on the ground, and there have been reports of fighters using their weapons to settle personal scores.
A group of 30 commanders of revolutionary groups met ahead of Thursday night's demonstration, planning a coalition to press their political influence. So far they have not formulated specific demands, and the cohesiveness between the often fractious militias remains to be seen. But they could form a pressure group on el-Keib's administration.
In a statement, they said they want to support the new government but warned that "we won't tolerate or forgive any opportunist to hinder our revolution."
They particularly said the new government should "take some time to think about who should be the chief of staff," who would head the national military.
The commanders were largely from eastern Libya, along with others from Tripoli. They said they would open contacts with revolutionary fighters from Misrata, east of Tripoli, who vaulted to prominence by being a key force in the taking of Sirte, the last stronghold of Gadhafi, and the killing of Gadhafi himself in October.
"It is basically all about uniting the efforts and to have a unified body as the rebels had the greater role in this revolution and it is time to have their voice heard by the officials," Khalid al-Moghrabi, a spokesman for the fighters, said Friday.
At Thursday night's rally, many of the fighters said they would only disband and hand over their weapons if they approve of the choice for military chief of staff.
Others demanded a say in the formation of the entire Cabinet, which is to lead the country until elections are organized.
"We won't stand for any of the names that we think are unqualified to be in the new government and we will decline and announce our approval or disapproval," said Abdullah Naker, a Tripoli militia commander at the march.
"The rebels should be recognized and not shelved and we demand to have a role in the new government especially in the transitional period," he said.