WASHINGTON - The new leader of Libya's opposition military spent the past two decades in suburban Virginia but felt compelled — even in his late-60s — to return to the battlefield in his homeland, according to people who know him.
Khalifa Hifter was once a top military officer for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, but after a disastrous military adventure in Chad in the late 1980s, Hifter switched to the anti-Gadhafi opposition. In the early 1990s, he moved to suburban Virginia, where he established a life but maintained ties to anti-Gadhafi groups.
Late last week, Hifter was appointed to lead the rebel army, which has been in chaos for weeks. He is the third such leader in less than a month, and rebels interviewed in Libya openly voiced distrust for the most recent leader, Abdel Fatah Younes, who had been at Gadhafi's side until just a month ago.
At a news conference Thursday, the rebel's military spokesman said Younes will stay as Hifter's chief of staff, and added that the army — such as it is — would need "weeks" of training.
According to Abdel Salam Badr of Richmond, Va., who said he has known Hifter all his life — including back in Libya — Hifter -- whose name is sometimes spelled Haftar, Hefter or Huftur -- was motivated by his intense anti-Gadhafi feelings.
"Libyans — every single one of them — they hate that guy so much they will do whatever it takes," Badr said in an interview Saturday. "Khalifa has a personal grudge against Gadhafi... That was his purpose in life."
According to Badr and another friend in the U.S., a Georgia-based Libyan activist named Salem alHasi, Hifter left for Libya two weeks ago.
alHasi, who said Hifter was once his superior in the opposition's military wing, said he and Hifter talked in mid-February about the possibility that Gadhafi would use force on protesters.
"He made the decision he had to go inside Libya," alHasi said Saturday. "With his military experience, and with his strong relationship with officers on many levels of rank, he decided to go and see the possibility of participating in the military effort against Gadhafi."
He added that Hifter is very popular among members of the Libyan army, "and he is the most experienced person in the whole Libyan army." He acted out of a sense of "national responsibility," alHasi said.
"This responsibility no one can take care of but him," alHasi said. "I know very well that the Libyan army especially in the eastern part is in desperate need of his presence."
Omar Elkeddi, a Libyan expatriate journalist based in Holland, said in an interview that the opposition forces are getting more organized than they were at the beginning up the uprising. Hifter, he said, is "very professional, very distinguished," and commands great respect.
Since coming to the United States in the early 1990s, Hifter lived in suburban Virginia outside Washington, D.C. Badr said he was unsure exactly what Hifter did to support himself, and that Hifter primarily focused on helping his large family.