TUNIS (Reuters) - Buoyed by the end of a long military campaign in Benghazi and new signs of foreign support, Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar has been signaling his intent to extend his power to the capital, Tripoli.
Haftar, a one-time ally of Muammar Gaddafi who fell out with the former Libyan leader in the 1980s, emerged as a strongman in eastern Libya over the past three years, using the Benghazi campaign to build up his forces whilst shunning a U.N.-mediated peace plan.
His strategy now appears to be to forge the kind of local alliances used to advance into key oil ports and parts of the south over the past year. But it is a strategy that would be higher risk and harder to achieve in the capital.
It also remains unclear how any move on Tripoli would materialize, and whether Haftar will shift to politics by standing in elections.
His supporters paint him as the figure capable of ending Libya's disorder by crushing extremists and stamping out militias. Opponents from Libya's "revolutionary" camp, some former rebels who fought to overthrow Gaddafi in a Nato-backed uprising in 2011, fear a return to autocratic rule.
Haftar, who lived for 20 years in the United States before returning to Libya for the uprising, has long hinted at his designs on Tripoli as part his plan to "liberate" all Libya, an ambition recently repeated.
Addressing a large gathering of eastern tribal leaders late last month, he said time was running out for the beleaguered U.N.-backed government in the capital.
"Our families in Tripoli and our brothers want us to enter," he said. "We can enter, but we want to do it in peace, without spilling blood."
Victory in Benghazi, which Haftar claimed on July 5, followed a series of other advances by forces loyal to his Libyan National Army (LNA).
In September, they took control of a string of oil ports southwest of Benghazi, and earlier this year they moved into strategic military bases in Libya's central desert, as forces from Misrata, a hub of military opposition to Haftar since 2014, withdrew.
Progress was achieved largely by winning over local tribes and armed groups – a technique Haftar is said to be seeking to emulate further west.
"A similar process is going on in Tripolitania on the coast, a really intense series of conversations," said one Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity and referring to the capital and surrounding region. "The intent is absolutely there, but he's trying to gauge when it's possible."
Among those Haftar has been courting are the Warfalla and Tarhouna tribes, which have a presence in areas on Haftar's potential route to the capital as well as in Tripoli itself, said Mohamed Eljarh, a non-resident fellow of the Atlantic Council, based in eastern Libya.
He said people close to LNA thinking were also expecting a move on Sirte, the coastal city on Libya's central coastline, where Islamic State established a stronghold in 2015.
Since Islamic State was ousted in a Misrata-led campaign last year, the city center has been controlled by a brigade of Salafists, ultra-conservatives who Haftar has worked with in the east and reportedly is also cultivating ties with in Tripoli.
But doubts remain over both Haftar's capacity and his intentions.
"Within the LNA camp and Haftar's inner circle you have two different currents … those calling to be politically engaged and positively engaged, and then you have others who are saying, 'the only way to do this is through military victory,'" said Eljarh.
For more than two weeks since Haftar appeared on television in a white uniform to declare victory in Benghazi, fighting has continued in one of the city's neighborhoods.
The LNA, which says it lost more than 5,000 men in the Benghazi campaign, has so far been unable to gain control over Derna, a city with a history of militancy further east along the coast.
Misrata is divided, but likely to fight if it feels its interests are threatened.
Winning Tripoli may depend on access to funding to gain backing from the capital's fickle armed groups, some of which fiercely oppose Haftar.
"There is recognition that he needs a lot more money," said the Western diplomat. "He's looking for a chunk of cash for securing loyalties in Tripoli."
That in turn may depend on foreign support, which Haftar has so far received primarily from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. More recently, he has developed closer ties with Russia.
Western powers still formally support the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, and their envoys say they have told Haftar they will not support a military solution in Libya.
But they have also repeatedly stated that Haftar must have a role, and have given more open recognition to the LNA's advances in Benghazi.
European diplomatic visits to the east have become regular, and the U.S. ambassador most recently met Haftar in Amman on July 9.
Editng by Larry King