TRIPOLI, Libya – Libya's interim interior minister resigned on Sunday after members of the newly-elected parliament accused his forces of neglect when attackers bulldozed a Sufi shrine and mosque while police stood by a day earlier.
Saturday's attack on the shrine was the latest in a string of assaults on Sufi places of worship, sparking fears of stewing sectarian troubles in a country that is still without a strong central government and largely without a functioning police or military.
The official Libyan news agency LANA reported that Fawzi Abdel-Al submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib.
The spokesman for Libya's security services, Abdel-Moneim al-Hurr, said Sunday that the interior minister's resignation had been accepted by both the prime minister and parliament.
Adding to the tension, a security official told The Associated Press that after lawmakers spoke out against the security forces' inaction, Tripoli's police and militias who work together as part of a security committee were ordered by their superiors to withdraw from the streets. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
LANA also reported that the elected national assembly, or parliament, called upon the security committee to ignore orders to stop work and to instead continue "serving the homeland."
Witnesses and an Associated Press reporter said security forces were visibly absent from the streets of Tripoli on Sunday.
Late Sunday, security spokesman al-Hurr said that 17 people had been arrested in connection with the desecration of the Sufi shrine. He also denied that security forces were ordered off the streets.
The turmoil comes after attacks by ultraconservative Muslim hardliners against religious shrines across the country. Saturday's bulldozing of a Tripoli Sufi shrine and a mosque with tombs inside came a day after hardliners in the city of Zliten bulldozed a more than 500-year-old shrine and library. Similar attacks have taken place over the past months in other cities and at least twice before in Tripoli.
The campaign appears to be aimed mainly at shrines revered by Sufis, a mystical Muslim order whose members often pray over the tombs of revered saints and ask for blessings or intervention to bring success, marriage or other desired outcomes. Hard-line Salafi Muslims deem the practice offensive because they consider worshipping over graves to be idolatry.
Libya is a deeply conservative Muslim nation and many moderates there also view the shrines as sacrilegious.
But Saturday's demolition despite the presence of security forces in the center of the capital sparked an outcry by the country's highest cleric and members of Libya's newly elected parliament, who decried the desecration and accused security authorities of being infiltrated by loyalists of Moammar Gadhafi's ousted regime. They also blamed the Interior Ministry for a general deterioration of security in the country.
Libya is awash with arms and there are also fears that any confrontation with the hardliners, who are heavily armed, could lead to even greater chaos.
The interior and defense ministers were called for questioning before parliament in a closed-door session on Sunday. The current caretaker government is expected to be renamed by parliament in the coming weeks.
The sudden resignation of the interior minister, though, is a reflection of Libya's security problems. Since last year's civil war that ended with the capture and killing of Gadhafi, the country has largely relied on security from militias comprised of citizens and former security officials who once battled Gadhafi's forces.
Both police and militias complain that they have not received enough support from the government and are not appreciated for the work they have done.