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Libyan Journalist: People In Benghazi 'Divided' Over How To Stop ISIS

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

ISIS is gaining control in Libya. More than four years ago, an international coalition partnered with local rebels, overthrew the country's dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, there's been instability and infighting and two competing governments in different parts of the country. Attempts to unify the two so far have not succeeded. Representatives from the U.S. and other coalition countries are in Rome this week to talk about how to fight ISIS, including in Libya. And just ahead, we'll talk with our Pentagon correspondent about what that might look like. But first, we're going to hear from the Libyan city of Benghazi.

Hi. Is this Omar?

OMAR AL-MOSMARY: Yeah, this is Omar. Can you hear my all right?

MCEVERS: Omar al-Mosmary is a Libyan journalist who's based in Benghazi, and he says there have been bread shortages lately and frequent blackouts. He says the city is split between the places that have been destroyed by fighting and the places where people can still actually live. Those areas, he said, are crowded, especially the schools.

AL-MOSMARY: Schools - it works, like, two or three schools at the same time. So children now go from schools, like, day after day. And by the evening, schools become universities.

MCEVERS: As you're going around the city, doing your work, do you hear, I mean, the sounds of the fighting - the gunshots...

AL-MOSMARY: Yes.

MCEVERS: ...The mortars?

AL-MOSMARY: Yeah. If I didn't hear it, that would be something wrong (laughter).

MCEVERS: If he didn't hear the fighting, he says, then something must be wrong. Al-Mosmary says people in Benghazi are divided about the idea of international airstrikes. They're not sure if they would help stop ISIS or just cause more destruction.

AL-MOSMARY: People are divided now, some of them thinking, OK, we need these strikes to stop al-Qaida and ISIS. And the other side is thinking, oh, my God, they're going to bomb us by mistake, which (laughter) is what happens in any war.

MCEVERS: For more on what the international community is considering in terms of military action in Libya, I'm joined by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: OK, Tom. So we have these representatives from the U.S. and other coalition countries gathered in Rome talking about how to fight ISIS in Libya. What are the current plans?

BOWMAN: Well, the plans are to wait for some sort of government to be formed in Libya, some sort of coalition government. And after that happens, they're talking about sending up to 5,000 Italian troops. These would not be combat troops, but they would provide security. They would also provide training for a new Libyan army. We're also told that maybe hundreds of British and French troops would be heading there for the same reason.

And I'm told that the U.S. will likely not send any ground troops at all. They'll provide what's called enablers. So that could be medevac capabilities. It could be drones. It could be cargo planes, refueling planes to help in this operation that's really being led by the Italians.

MCEVERS: Could it at some point be U.S.-led airstrikes as well?

BOWMAN: It's possible it could be U.S.-led airstrikes. There's a great deal of concern about the growth of ISIS in Libya, particularly around the city of Sirte, where there...

MCEVERS: Right, that's Muammar Gaddafi's former stronghold, right?

BOWMAN: Extactly, and they estimate there are, you know, several thousand ISIS fighters. Now they're getting stronger. And the real concern is they're grabbing the oil wealth, the billions of dollars of oil wealth in Libya and using it for future operations.

The other concern is right across the water, right across the Mediterranean, you have Italy. And next door, you have Egypt. There's a concern that ISIS operations could expand to both those countries. So there's a sense of urgency here, but again, we don't expect anything to happen until some sort of a government is formed.

MCEVERS: To give us a timeline here, Tom. I mean, how soon could this happen?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know. Secretary of State John Kerry said he hopes the government will be formed soon, but we really have no timeline at this point. And also, you would need some sort of, you know, international approval for some sort of operation, and that would likely have to come from the U.N. Security Council. That's what I'm hearing.

MCEVERS: What if a government isn't formed in Libya? Can officials imagine the U.S. getting involved in some kind of airstrike campaign on Sirte anyway?

BOWMAN: That's possible. Last fall, there was a U.S. F-15 that took out an ISIS leader...

MCEVERS: That's right.

BOWMAN: ...In the city of Derna. And it's possible you could see other such strikes against ISIS in the coming weeks and months. Again, there's a great deal of concern, so some on Capitol Hill are saying, you can't wait for a government to form; you might have to take some sort of military action, some sort of airstrikes against ISIS before that government comes to be.

MCEVERS: I guess the concern from others who might not want to do this is that we could see a real ramping up like the airstrike campaigns in Syria and Iraq.

BOWMAN: That is possible. The challenge is, you know, do they have people within the city that could point to targets where ISIS is located? Could you get communications equipment to people in the city that could help you along those lines, as we've seen that, of course, in Ramadi, in Iraq and also Raqqah in Syria, where some of the strikes were aided by people inside the cities helping to pinpoint targets.

MCEVERS: And of course, the other concern with yes (ph) would be civilians...

BOWMAN: Absolutely.

MCEVERS: ...In places like Sirte.

BOWMAN: Right. There are huge numbers of civilians in Sirte. I think ISIS has already killed people suspected of spying...

MCEVERS: Right.

BOWMAN: ...Against them, so it's - yeah, it's very, very difficult.

MCEVERS: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.