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In Benghazi, militias may promote security one day, threaten it the next

Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan Islamist militia publicly blamed for the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last month, has disappeared from the city's streets. Not all locals are happy about that.

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Soldiers stand guard at an armed militia base belonging to the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia militia group, that they had stormed with pro-government demonstrators in Benghazi, Libya, September 21. Ansar al-Sharia's members are known in the US as the killers who overran the US consulate in Benghazi last month, murdering US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

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Ansar al-Sharia's members are known in the US as the killers who overran the US consulate in Benghazi last month, murdering US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues. The incident that has roiled the US presidential race and led to furious rounds of politicking and finger pointing in Washington.

But to Fadya Bargathi at Benghazi's El Jala hospital, the designated culprits in the consulate attack are something else: saviors. “Before Ansar al-Shariah took over security here our lives were hell,” says Ms. Bargathi, a hospital administrator. “People would walk in and out of the hospital with their weapons, and if they didn’t get treatment immediately they would put a gun to a doctor’s head.”

The story of Jala hospital and Ansar's role in restoring order there captures the chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya. Militias, some Islamist, some not, are frequently the first line of security, other times the threat themselves.

Ansar al-Sharia is alleged to have been both. While many in Benghazi are skeptical the group ordered the attack on the US consulate, and see them more likely as a convenient scapegoat, US and Libyan officials have been pointing in their direction.

But Bargathi sees the group differently. She was one of the few staff members at the hospital during a visit last week. Most of her colleagues were on strike, demanding the return of Ansar al-Shariah’s security detail.

They vanished from the city's streets after Sept. 21, when tens of thousands of ordinary Libyans took to the streets to demand an end to militia rule in a "Save Benghazi" protest. The protest, which came 10 days after the consulate attack, ended with thousands of people storming the barracks of Ansar al-Sharia and several other Islamist katiba, or brigades.

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