Libyan Rebels Fight Gaddafi Loyalists to Control Tripoli

Gaddafi’s fall in oil-rich Libya may have a broader impact than anything yet seen in the Arab Spring.

Sergey Ponomarev / AP Photo

The gun-trucks emblazoned with the rebel’s tri-color flag raced down the road, one after another, toward Bab al-Aziziya, Muammar Gaddafi’s sprawling complex in southern Tripoli. Heavy machine gun fire thundered out from the site and a thick plume of black smoke streamed into the air. There were fighters from Tripoli along with their comrades from several smaller towns. After six long months of brutal fighting the endgame was in sight and they all wanted a piece of the action.

But the Libyans aren’t the only ones with a stake in this fight. The French, Americans, British, and Italians—even tiny Qatar, which sent in military advisers to coordinate NATO airstrikes—all invested heavily with the material and logistical support that led to the fall of the regime. And they will no doubt want their payback once the oil starts pumping again. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the rebel National Transitional Council, laid it on the table back in May. The rebel’s steadfast allies “would have the best opportunity in future contracts,” he said.

The uprising in Egypt may have had more symbolic resonance across the Arab world, but it’s the fall of the regime in Libya, with its vast oil reserves, that may have the broader global impact. Still, some opposition activists in Syria have started to debate the merits of a limited foreign intervention. And President Bashar al-Assad, no doubt, sees that his coterie of regional despots is thinning out. The uprisings of the Arab Spring started in a similar fashion, but as the summer is now coming to an end, they are all leading toward vastly different outcomes.

Near one entrance of Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli, a group of fighters from Misrata, the port city that endured a devastating siege earlier this year, gathered to regroup. The volunteers from Misrata have earned a reputation as some of the most hard-core fighters among the rebels because of what they endured during the siege. Before the uprising began in February, Mahmoud Derrat, 26, was a civil engineer. Now, covered head to toe in camouflage, he can rattle off the name of dead friends with ease, including one whose name is emblazoned in white paint on the back of his gun truck. “We have around 2,000 martyrs from Misrata,” Derrat says with glazed red eyes. He seems to have little doubt that their sacrifice has been worth it. “When I got to Tripoli, I already felt like we achieved victory,” he said.

These are heady days in Libya. Just one week before the 42nd anniversary of the 1969 coup, the despot responsible for the torture and deaths of thousands of Libyans was finally kicked out of power. The scaffolding that had been set up for the celebration of the “Great September 1st Revolution” in Tripoli’s Green Square, now renamed Martyr’s Square, stands half-built. There are no banners paying tribute to the Brother-Leader. His portraits are now scattered torn and burned across the square. And ordinary Libyans have scrawled their real thoughts about the dictator in graffiti on walls across the city: liar, unbeliever, dog. Last Thursday afternoon, hundreds of Libyans, including families with small children, drove around the streets of central Tripoli carrying the rebel flag and blasting their horns. One group of young men hung outside their car window shouting, “We are free! We are free!”

Can the rebels hold on to their hard-fought gains? The intense fighting in and around Tripoli last week suggests that some loyalists aren’t going to give up. Many may have already gone to ground to start a bloody insurgency like the one that has plagued Iraq for the past eight years. If there’s a prolonged state of insecurity, the country could start to break up along tribal and regional lines. Many of the rebel fighters like Derrat are fiercely loyal to their hometowns: security checkpoints across Tripoli are covered with spray-painted slogans praising small cities or regions. Many of the rebels dismiss any talk of friction within their ranks. But the assassination last month of Abdel Fattah Younes, the military chief of staff in eastern Libya, by his own fighters was a clear sign of the deep divisions among the rebels. If the country starts drifting toward civil war, there’s little that the rebel’s closest allies can do to stop the bloodshed.

For the moment, the rebels are trying to get their act together. More than two dozen opposition leaders gathered in a conference room at the Radisson Hotel in Tripoli last Thursday to lay out their plans for stabilizing the city, the first gathering of its kind in the capital. The group included activists who have been working inside the country, as well as a number of Libyans who have been supporting the opposition from abroad. Many of them were meeting each other for the first time and wept openly as they embraced each other. “It’s a fantastic feeling seeing the group here,” said Usama al Abed, the deputy chairman of the Tripoli council. “We’ve been working underground for the past six months.” Abed and the other opposition figures must now shift their priorities from plotting to overthrow a dictator to meeting the urgent needs of the city residents, including emergency medical care and clean water.

But there’s little doubt that their biggest challenge will be establishing security. At roughly the same time the opposition leaders gathered for that first meeting, Gaddafi loyalists launched an assault on the Corinthia Hotel a couple of miles away. The hotel now houses dozens of foreign journalists which likely spurred the attack. The pro-Gaddafi fighters blasted away at the hotel and raised the green flag of the regime atop a nearby building. It took the rebel fighters nearly an hour to push them back.

Derrat, the fighter from Misrata, is confident that the pro-government fighters will eventually be defeated. In recent days, the loyalists have started using human shields, Derrat said, a sign of their desperation. The National Transitional Council knows that Gaddafi's capture would deal a significant blow to the loyalists and has offered a $1.3 million reward for his capture. Derrat and his colleagues are on the hunt. “We are sure he’s in Tripoli,” said Derrat, stroking his bushy black beard. “We will win.” Unless he's caught, Gaddafi will no doubt continue to taunt the rebels while in hiding.