BENGHAZI, Libya — Tribal leaders and militia commanders declared oil-rich eastern Libya a semiautonomous state on Tuesday, a unilateral move that the interim head of state called a "dangerous" conspiracy by Arab nations to tear the country apart six months after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
Thousands of representatives of major tribes, militia commanders and politicians made the declaration at a conference in the main eastern city of Benghazi, insisting it was not intended to divide the country. They said they want their region to remain part of a united Libya, but needed to do this to stop decades of discrimination against the east.
The conference declared that the eastern state, known as Barqa, would have its own parliament, police force, courts and capital – Benghazi, the country's second largest city – to run its own affairs. Foreign policy, the national army and oil resources would be left to the central government in the capital Tripoli in western Libya. Barqa would cover nearly half the country, from the center to the Egyptian border in the east and down to the borders with Chad and Sudan in the south.
Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the Tripoli-based interim central government known as the National Transitional Council, warned the declaration "leads to danger" of eventually breaking up the North African nation of 6 million. But he also said it was to be expected, because the east played a pivotal role in ending Gadhafi's rule.
"Some Arab nations, unfortunately, have supported and encouraged this to happen," he said, without naming any countries. "These nations are funding this kind of unacceptable strife," he added at a news conference in Tripoli. "What happened today is the beginning of a conspiracy against Libya and Libyans. "
Asked by The Associated Press, Abdul-Jalil's office refused to specify which Arab nations were allegedly supporting division in Libya.
The interim leader has not in the past blamed any Arab nation for meddling, while praising Gulf nations like Qatar, which was supportive of the rebels fighting Gadhafi.
Abdul-Jalil appealed to Libyans for patience and resolve in the face of the country's mounting problems.
Fadl-Allah Haroun, a senior tribal figure and militia commander, said the declaration aims for administrative independence, not separation.
"We are not talking about changing the flag or national anthem. We are talking about different administration, a parliament and managing the financial affairs," he said.
The east was the cradle of last year's uprising and civil war that ousted Gadhafi. In the early days of the revolt, the entire east came under opposition control and remained that way until Gadhafi fell in August. The eastern rebels set up the National Transitional Council, originally in Benghazi, which then moved to Tripoli and became the central government.
The goal for the east now is to revive the system in place from 1951 until 1963, when Libya, ruled by a monarchy, was divided into three states: Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the southwest and Cyrenaica in the east – or Barqa, as it was called in Arabic.
Easterners say the step is necessary to end the marginalization their region suffered for decades under Gadhafi's rule. The former dictator focused development and largesse on the west, allowing infrastructure to decline in the east, an area that was a constant source of opposition to the regime.
Many in the east accuse the National Transitional Council of continuing to favor the west. After Libya declared liberation in October, the NTC and the interim government moved its offices to Tripoli in the west. The majority of Cabinet ministers are from the west.
The declaration underscored the weakness of the NTC, which has been largely unable to establish its authority around the country since the fall of Gadhafi in August and his subsequent death in October. The Council holds little sway even in Tripoli, where militias that arose during the anti-Gadhafi revolt have divided neighborhoods up into fiefdoms.
The prime minister of the interim government created by the NTC, Abdurrahim el-Keib, admitted that the government has not been up to the task.
"The government is not doing its job. My evaluation of its performance is not good," he said in an interview on state TV. "The steps we are taking are slow."
The Benghazi conference illustrated one of the fundamental weaknesses in post-Gadhafi Libya – the lack of political institutions. Over 42 years in power, Gadhafi stripped the country of any credible representative bodies. As a result, since his ouster, towns, cities, tribes and militias across Libya have largely taken authority into their own hands. The local power centers have confused and often thwarted the NTC's attempts to establish any national control.
Still, Abdul-Jalil vowed Tripoli would remain the capital and said the nation would not go down the path that Gadhafi had warned of.
The Benghazi conference has no official status. The impact it has depends on how much influence its participants can wield among the population of the east and how strongly they push their demands on a resistant Tripoli. So far other regions have not made any moves to create their own states or call for a federal system.
Barqa advocates also point to the presence in Tripoli of powerful militia groups from the western cities of Zintan and Misrata, who impose their will on the ruling authorities. The two militias swept into the capital in the push that toppled Gadhafi and have since positioned themselves around vital institutions, including the airport.
At the conference, delegates raised the old Barqa state flag – black with a crescent and a star. The gathering appointed Ahmed al-Zubair, Libya's longest serving political prisoner under Gadhafi, as leader of a planned governing council for Barqa state. Al-Zubair is a descendant of the former Libyan King Idris, whom Gadhafi ousted in 1969 coup. He is also a member of the National Transitional Council.
The conference said elections would be held in the east in two weeks to choose a governing council.
It rejected a draft law by the NTC on the planned June election that would give the east 60 seats in the assembly, compared to around 102 for the west. Drafters say that reflects the west's larger population, but easterners see it as a continuation of discrimination.
Among those who attended the Benghazi conference were top leaders of heavyweight eastern tribes, including the Ubaidat, Mughariba and Awajeer, which hold a powerful sway over large sectors of the population in the east. Also attending were commanders from the Barqa Army, a grouping of 61 eastern "revolutionary militias." Several senior Defense Ministry officials also attended and supported the declaration.
Speaking to the AP after the conference, al-Zubair rejected Tripoli's accusations that the east had received encouragement from abroad, saying the decision to declare a semiautonomous state was voted on by local tribal leaders and officials.