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(CNN) -- His story reads like a political thriller. Once a confidant of Moammar Gadhafi and then his sworn enemy, he led a band of Libyan exiles trying to overthrow the Libyan regime before being spirited in secrecy to the United States when things went bad. His name is Khalifa Haftar.
He has lived in Virginia for 20 years but now he's back in Libya, trying to knock the rebel force into some kind of shape.
CNN has spoken to several people who know Haftar well, and they agree on one thing: His role will be crucial, if the opposition is to mount a serious military challenge to Gadhafi.
For Haftar it's personal. He has never forgiven Gadhafi for letting him rot as a prisoner of war in neighboring Chad after a disastrous military campaign in the 1980s.
By all accounts, Haftar is a soldier's soldier -- respected by junior officers, with a good command of battlefield doctrine. Some detect his hand in the better defensive organization of rebel positions around Ajdabiya, a town critical for the defense of Benghazi but also giving access to the south.
The former Libyan ambassador in Washington, Ali Aujali, describes Haftar as "a very professional military man."
He and Gadhafi first found common cause in 1969, when Haftar, as a military cadet, supported the coup that removed King Idris. He was rewarded with a position on the Revolutionary Command Council. His subsequent ascent through the military ranks was rapid.
But unfortunately for Haftar, he was involved in the disastrous campaign against neighboring Chad in the 1980s, when Gadhafi wanted to overthrow President Hissene Habre because of his cold war alliances with France and the United States.
Haftar was captured by the Chadians at the battle of Wadi Doum in 1987, along with several hundred Libyan soldiers. Gadhafi refused to acknowledge the existence of Libyan POWs and said he knew no one called Haftar. A Libyan exile who has known Haftar for 20 years, Aly Abuzaakouk, told CNN that "Gadhafi never formally recognized there were any POWs in Chad," sending the signal that he didn't care if they were all executed.
This infuriated Haftar, according to Salem al-Hasi, another long-time opponent of Gadhafi. "He approached the Chadian government and said he wanted to work against Gadhafi and get the captured soldiers freed," al-Hasi said.
So for the next two years, Haftar and several hundred former Libyan soldiers trained at a base outside the Chadian capital, N'djamena, as the Libyan National Army -- the military wing of the opposition Libyan National Salvation Front.
Just who funded them remains shrouded in mystery, but several Libyan exiles and a former CIA officer say the United States was involved. Former Libyan envoy Aujali would not be drawn out on whether the CIA was the paymaster, but said, "The Americans knew him very, very well."
And he added: "I think working for the CIA for the sake of your national interest is nothing to be ashamed of."
At the time, the United States was keen to see the end of Gadhafi. In 1986, President Reagan had ordered airstrikes against the Libyan leader's compounds in Tripoli after U.S. intelligence had established Libyan involvement in a bomb attack on a Berlin disco frequented by U.S. service personnel. Reagan had famously described Gadhafi as a "mad dog."
The dissidents never got a chance to invade Libya because their host, President Habre, was overthrown in a coup in December 1990 by the man who has ruled Chad ever since -- Idriss Deby. And that's where Haftar's story becomes even more extraordinary. Deby wanted good relations with Gadhafi and the rapid exit of Haftar and his men. A bizarre African odyssey followed.
Derek Flood of the Jamestown Foundation, who has followed Haftar's career closely, said he and his men were flown on a U.S. plane from Chad to Nigeria and then to what was then Zaire (and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo), as Washington scrambled to find a home for the Libyan rebels. This account is supported by several Libyan sources and a former U.S. diplomat.
But Flood said a plan to funnel $5 million to the infamously corrupt Zairean regime to allow the Libyans to stay there was overturned in Congress.
The next stop was Kenya, but after relations soured between the Kenyan government and the administration of George H. W. Bush, some 300 Libyans were finally flown to the United States and resettled as political refugees at government expense. Haftar exchanged the desert expanses of the Sahara for a home in Falls Church Virginia, and his men scattered across 25 states.
For the next 20 years, Haftar lived quietly in suburban Virginia, occasionally denying rumors that he planned to return to Libya. But Abuzaakouk, who runs the Libyan Human and Political Development Forum, said that after unrest flared in February, Haftar received many calls appealing for him to return. And on March 14, he arrived in Benghazi to take charge of the rebels' chaotic military campaign.
Salem al-Hasi, who has lived in the United States since being part of an abortive attempt to kill Gadhafi in the 1980s, said Haftar can make a difference "as long as he gets the support, supplies and weapons." He said Haftar has a "sense of defining objectives and the ability to convince soldiers and officers" of his aims.
After spending two weeks in Libya, Flood said the chaotic back-and-forth of the military campaign has not allowed the rebels to train properly in rear bases.
Some have argued that Haftar and other exiles have been away from Libya for too long to relate to the younger rebels. But Aujali -- the former Libyan ambassador who split with Gadhafi -- said people such as Haftar may have been absent but "they are very well-informed; they have relatives."
Al Hasi spoke to Haftar by phone just a few days ago. "He was in high spirits, and he thinks that in the near future the forces will be organized, and the opposition will be much better than in recent weeks," he said.
There remains some doubt about the hierarchy among rebel commanders, who include Haftar, Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis and Gen. Omar al-Hariri. Abuzaakouk, who took Haftar to the airport for his journey home, said Haftar and Younis are friends and doubts they will become rivals.
He has no doubt that beyond Haftar's commitment to the rebels' cause, Haftar has a score to settle: "Haftar will fight to the death if necessary; he'll be the one to finish Gadhafi."
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