Libya Uprising: Gaddafi’s Loyalists Resist Rebel Advances

Triumphant rebels have taken over most of Tripoli, but resistance remains. By Babak Dehghanpisheh.

AP Photo

The last stand of the madman of the Sahara didn't turn out to be much of a last stand at all. Like many a dictator before him, Muammar Gaddafi went out like a paper tiger, his threats to slaughter the rebel forces like “rats” just bombast and hot air. Rebel forces in western Libya stormed into Tripoli Sunday night after a lightning-fast assault from the town of Zawiyah, some 25 miles outside the capital. After midnight, rebel fighters were waving their tricolor flag in Tripoli's central Green Square, which they renamed Martyr’s Square, cheered on by some of the city’s residents. Around them, portraits of Gaddafi lay in tatters.

But can the rebels hold it? This type of quick assault, covering several miles in a single day, has been the trademark of the rebel fighters, many of whom are civilians with little military background. In eastern Libya, that often meant a Mad Max charge across the Sahara, armed to the teeth in jury-rigged pickups and sedans. The same fighters were just as likely to turn tail and retreat dozens of kilometers the minute they faced any resistance, usually a barrage of artillery shells from Gaddafi's troops.

Fierce clashes broke out around the Bab al Aziziyah compound, Gaddafi's Tripoli stronghold, early Monday morning, raising concerns that the pro-government forces were trying to launch a counteroffensive. There were reports of further clashes around the city later in the day. The worry is that the easy march into Tripoli may have been a ruse: loyalist forces may have gone to ground and could start guerrilla attacks against the rebel forces with or without Gaddafi's direction. This was the strategy that Saddam Hussein's fedayeen followed after the U.S. invasion in 2003, kicking off a blood-soaked insurgency that still continues today. Gaddafi loyalists, particularly the lijan thawriya, or revolutionary committees, have proved themselves to be a resilient lot. In June, nearly four months after the uprising began, a car bomb went off in front of the prominent Tibesti hotel in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital. That attack was attributed to loyalist cells in the city, as were a handful of shootings of prominent activists.

For the moment, the rebels do have plenty to celebrate. They not only marched into the capital with a minimal amount of casualties, they also captured two of Gaddafi's sons. The biggest catch was Saif al-Islam, the man seen as the power behind the throne, who had repeatedly said he wouldn't go down without a fight. NBC reported that Saif was caught trying to escape while dressed as a woman.

Rebel officials claim they are preparing to hand him over to the International Criminal Court, which has issued a warrant for him for crimes against humanity. Also captured was Saif al-Islam's older brother Muhammad. He was on a phone interview with Al Jazeera when heavy shooting broke out in the background and the line went dead.

Of course, the man that most Libyans are looking for is the Brother-Leader himself. Rumors swirled on Monday that South Africa, one of the countries that had tried to mediate between the rebels and the government, had sent airplanes to rescue Gaddafi, a claim that South African officials strongly denied. Could the dictator try a sea escape? Would another African country give him shelter? With buckets of cash at his disposal, there would seem to be plenty of options. But in the end, it's more likely that Gaddafi, like Saddam, will be found hiding in a hole in the ground. Meanwhile, his countrymen must try to undo the damage that the madman has wrought over four decades.