By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
BENGHAZI, Libya, Sept 18 (Reuters) - A Libyan Salafi group which has denied it was involved in a deadly assault on the American consulate in Benghazi said on Tuesday Libya would turn into "an inferno for U.S. troops" if the U.S. military retaliated.
Yousef Jehani, a senior member of Ansar al-Sharia, told Reuters that the armed group, which espouses an austere form of Islam, wanted to avoid confrontation but was ready for a showdown if Washington acted "foolishly".
Any U.S. military intervention could push Libyans to wage a holy war, or "jihad", to defend their nation, said Jehani, whose group is a powerful force in Benghazi, a stronghold for Islamists and cradle of the revolution which toppled Muammar Gaddafi last year.
"If one U.S. soldier arrives, not for the purpose of defending the embassy, but to repeat what happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, be sure that all battalions in Libya and all Libyans will put aside all their differences and rally behind one goal of hitting America and Americans," Jehani said.
The consulate attack was part of wider anti-American protests that erupted across the Middle East over an obscure, amateurish U.S.-made video that insulted the Prophet Mohammad.
Libya closed its air space over Benghazi airport temporarily due to heavy anti-aircraft fire by Islamists aiming at U.S. reconnaissance drones flying over the city, days after the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans died in the attack.
The closure of the airport prompted speculation that the United States was deploying special forces in preparation for an attack against the assailants of the consulate. Two U.S. warships headed for the coast off Libya.
DRONES OVER BENGHAZI
A Libyan official said the spy planes flew over the embassy compound and the city, where Ansar al-Sharia controls a major security compound and a hospital, taking photos and inspecting locations of radical militant groups suspected of planning and staging the attack on the U.S. consulate.
Jehani said senior commanders within pro-government paramilitary units had exonerated Ansar al-Sharia and none of its members was among 50 people the Libyan authorities had identified as having been involved in the attack.
"We are against the killing of the ambassador as he has not committed a crime to be killed for but if America uses this as an excuse, Libya will be an inferno for U.S. troops," Jehani said, adding that his group was "highly" prepared.
Although no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, some Libyan officials and foreign analysts have pointed the finger at the Salafi group.
Ansar al-Sharia is part of a wider Salafi movement whose members try to model their lives on the early followers of the Prophet Mohammad. Not all Salafis, however, embrace the violent militancy of groups such as al Qaeda that have a similar purist vision of Islam.
Ansar al-Sharia, which incurred persecution for opposing Gaddafi's rule, has been accused by pro-government paramilitary units of involvement in several violent incidents in Libya's second city in recent months. The eastern city harbours deep grievances over western Libya's control of oil pumped from the east.
A year after the end of Gaddafi's four decades of one-man rule, when many state institutions withered, armed militias spawned by the revolution still provide what passes for official security - when they are not threatening it.
Libya's new leaders, backed by their Western allies, have been gambling they can forge a political consensus which will seize power back from the heavily-armed revolutionaries in the streets before rivalries spin irretrievably out of control.
AMERICANS WOULD BE TARGETS
U.S. citizens would become legitimate targets if Washington sent any troops to target Islamist groups, Jehani said.
"Libyans will wage jihad. The U.S. will be hit much harder than in Afghanistan and even U.S. nationals would be targeted because the American presence would be considered an invasion."
Jehani held Washington responsible for the deaths at the consulate, saying the United States should have looked after the ambassador at a time when passions were running high amongst Libyans over the video mocking the Prophet Mohammad.
"U.S. policy is to blame for the result ... They should know better the sensitivities of Muslims towards their religious symbols, and America should have known that this would bring it the wrath of all Muslims," Jehani said, adding: "They should have put their ambassador in a safe place for a while."
Ostensibly the attack on the embassy was sparked by the film but some Libyan officials suggested it was pre-planned to coincide with the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks and in revenge for the killing of a senior Libyan al Qaeda aide.
Jehani said his group was not ready to hand over its weapons until pro-government military units were cleansed of what he said were elements left over from the Gaddafi era.
The biggest challenge the new Libyan authorities face is to impose authority over a myriad of armed groups who refuse to surrender their weapons.
The failure of successive efforts in the past year to persuade the ex-rebel militias to disband and disarm, or to transfer loyalties clearly to the interim leadership, itself a fractious body, has left many sceptical of future prospects.
"The army has not purged itself until now of the remnants from the old regime and Gaddafi's men," Jehani said. "How can I give my weapons or hand my neck to people incapable of achieving security and without competence?"
Ansar al-Sharia says that supporters of Gaddafi joined some militias and are now on the government payroll. The group, which lost many fighters on the frontline, says it has been subjected to a campaign to marginalise and undermine it.
Jehani said brigades such as Ansar al-Sharia, many of whose senior leaders had spent years in Gaddafi's jails, would resist a new political order that empowered veteran opposition figures who spent years in comfortable exile in the West and excluded those who paid dearly for their country's freedom.
"We reject those who take power and apply a foreign agenda and do not see the interest of Libya and only look after their personal gain." Jehani said.
"We fear what happened in Iraq, when agents of foreigners came on a U.S. tank and took power and we don't want this to happen here in Libya. We will not allow it to happen." (Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, editing by Peter Millership)