They have arms. They hate Gaddafi. But can a quickly constituted crew down a dictator? Babak Dehghanpisheh reports from Libya. Plus, full coverage of the Libyan uprisings.
Fighters loyal to Muammar Gaddafi stormed the oil port city of Brega before dawn last Wednesday. They came, heavily armed, in a convoy of some 50 military vehicles and SUVs. “They were shooting at us with anti-aircraft guns,” says Rabiya Mesmari, a 28-year-old soldier-turned-rebel whose glazed eyes peered out from under a white New York Yankees baseball cap. The two sides fought viciously amid the sand dunes that border the aqua-colored waters of the Mediterranean. Jets screeched overhead, hammering targets around the city’s oil refinery. “I had this,” Mesmari says, slapping the stock of his FAL Belgian machine gun. “And I had Allah.” He points up at the sky.
The battle of Brega was the latest test of Libya’s rebels. They may have been outgunned, but there was little doubt who won this opening round, as dozens of them milled around the main gate of the refinery the following day, blasting off victory rounds. Stepping amid the hundreds of empty shell casings littering the asphalt, Mesmari, like his fellow grunts, reveled: “There’s no Army here now. We’re all part of the opposition. And we’re marching on to Tripoli.”
These rebel forces, freedom fighters to millions of Libyans, are now the only obstacle preventing Gaddafi from steamrolling across the country. When the uprising erupted in mid-February, the dictator looked like he was on the ropes: town after town in the east fell under rebel control. Thousands of protesters massed in the heart of Tripoli. But the Saharan despot has methodically fortified his position since, erecting defensive rings around the capital and cracking down on anyone who dares to protest there. And now he has opened a front to the east, deploying forces to recapture rebel-held towns.
These rebel forces, freedom fighters to millions of Libyans, are now the only obstacle preventing Gaddafi from steamrolling across the country.
Those rebels may have held Brega, but at a cost: the fighting killed at least 12 and wounded 28, according to doctors at the Brega hospital. No one knows the force’s exact size. “Overall in the east you’re talking about thousands,” says Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch who was on the front line with the fighters in Brega. “The breakdown is about 60 percent volunteers and 40 percent ex-military. They’re not very well trained, but they definitely have the weaponry. They’re learning as they go along.”
But could the rebels mount an assault on Gaddafi’s doorstep? The answer depends on whether such a motley crew can be rapidly pulled together into a competent fighting force. Consider the cigarette-smoke-filled scene last week at an Army base in central Benghazi, the de facto opposition capital. There was Khaled Suweiri, 43, a pudgy ex-special forces captain decked out in a blue Adidas jacket and a baseball cap. There was Mahmoud Abdul Wahab, a 23-year-old nursing student dressed in muddy jeans, bouncing off the walls with excitement. And there was Mohammed Faraj Ali, 35, who had broken out of jail just three weeks earlier. Ali was the only one in the room wearing a full military uniform, complete with a red beret.
A disparate bunch? Undoubtedly. But they’ve proved effective: in late February these men, and dozens like them won the vicious and bloody fight for the Katiba, a sprawling military base and detention facility in the center of Benghazi.
One of the men tasked with pulling this ragtag bunch together is Gen. Ahmed Gatrani, 58, a senior member of the newly formed military council that includes defectors from the Libyan Army, Navy, and Air Force. He walks around with a thick green military coat draped over his shoulders, and projects an air of authority. While some rebel commanders have been circumspect about the rebel force, Gatrani doesn’t mince words. “Do you think they’re training to be mechanics?” Gatrani asks with a laugh. “Soon they will go to every place that has not been liberated yet in Libya.”
There’s no shortage of recruits. On a recent morning, throngs of men streamed through the gates of a makeshift recruitment center housed in a school in central Benghazi. The volunteers were quickly registered, then pulled immediately together into formation. One commander ran the group of roughly 500 recruits through basic drills. Some of the recruits bumped into each other during the march, but no matter. The commanders quickly shifted to more important skills: they rolled an anti-aircraft gun onto the outdoor basketball court for an impromptu lesson. “We’re not going to use any of these weapons against the Libyan people,” said Masoud Bwisir, 36, a car-wash and café owner who wore a bandolier of bullets over his left shoulder and had an anti-tank mine tucked under his right arm. He pulled out a block of plastic explosive—enough to level the schoolyard—and dangled a fuse precariously close. “This is for destroying Gaddafi,” he smiled.
If there's a charge to Tripoli, there are more experienced hands who could lead the way. Mohammed Abdullah, 40, one of the rebel trainers, served many years in the Libyan special forces. Abdullah--who goes by "Fox"-- claims the westward charge to the capital has already begun: for more than a week, he and a handful of other commandos have been infiltrating government-held towns for “communication and coordination.” Dozens of rebel commandos have even been sent to Tripoli, he says, to lay the groundwork for operations.”
Despite much chest thumping on the international stage, whatever fight the rebels wage against Gaddafi, outside backing, at least for now, seems far off. The United Nations Security Council was quick to unanimously adopt sanctions. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have also unloaded a barrage of fierce rhetoric. But the fight is likely to remain between ordinary Libyans and Gaddafi loyalists, including entire military brigades under the control of the dictator’s psychotic sons. Even on talk of a no-fly zone, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week, “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya.” Washington doesn’t have an appetite for unleashing bombs in another Middle Eastern country.
The rebels of “Free Libya” aren’t waiting for Washington—or anyone else for that matter. They’ve formed a potential alternative government to the regime in Tripoli, and they’re gearing up for a showdown. No one can guess Gaddafi’s next move; after all, his deft maneuvering has kept him in power for more than four decades. As for the rebels, they have few options left. Fox, the special forces coordinator, sums it up bluntly: “We fight or we die.”
Babak Dehghanpisheh was named Newsweek’s Baghdad bureau chief in December 2006. He has been covering Iraq regularly for the past five years.