AT MIDNIGHT army pickup trucks trawl Benghazi, the rebels’ main town, collectingthawar, or revolutionaries, for the front. Four-day veterans exhale their modern equivalent of a war-cry, a hail of anti-aircraft bullets blasted into the night sky, and bundle Ahmed Labeidi, a pint-size boy, into the truck. Almost half his class have already joined up. The minimum age for the draft has been lowered to 15. “My father told me to join my friends,” he says sadly, bowing to peer pressure.
Recruits are meant to have a week’s instruction before the thawar head west. Many get less. In a schoolyard a few score of boys, plus a pensioner who says he last held a gun 35 years ago, gather for three hours of training. They have only four guns, and the instructors are late. “Perhaps they’ve left for the front,” says an organiser.
Instead of being taught to shoot, raw recruits are being told to take inspiration from Omar Mukhtar, a Libyan jihadist who fought (albeit in vain) against Italian imperialists in the 1920s, armed just with an ancient Ottoman rifle. Lacking in experience though they plainly are, the thawar have had some success. Last week they ousted the colonel’s troops from two oil ports, Brega and Ras Lanuf, between Tripoli, the capital, in the west and Benghazi, the rebels’ headquarters in the east. But then, as they pushed on, the rebels were ambushed at Bin Jawwad, west of Ras Lanuf, and have since taken heavy losses. Ambulances race to the front with recruits, defying orders from calmer leaders to reinforce the front line only where they are confident of holding it. “You can be a martyr fighting Qaddafi’s planes here,” the young recruits shout at teenage newcomers.
The colonel seems to be biding his time, consolidating his hold in the west and concentrating his superior firepower on Zawiya and Misrata, the two rebel-held towns closest to Tripoli. As The Economist went to press, reports suggest he may have retaken Zawiya. He may then counter-attack eastward towards Benghazi. Overall, the outcome of what has become a civil war is still in the balance. But the colonel may be recouping after his initial setbacks.
organisation, though neither side can boast much of the last. He still commands the bulk of an army that was 50,000-strong before the uprising against him began. Some 6,000 of his troops have joined the rebels, who number many thousands of volunteers but have only rudimentary equipment. Half of the deserters take orders from General Suleiman Mahmoud, based in Tobruk, north-east of Benghazi, and another 1,000 or so special forces are led by Colonel Qaddafi’s former interior minister, Abdel Fatah Younis. Though both men declared their defection, they seem to be defying demands by the rebels’ “national transitional council” to throw their military weight fully behind the war against their former comrades still loyal to the colonel. Perhaps they are hedging their bets. “They’re playing games,” says a council member.
Another 2,000-odd army defectors answer to Major Ahmed Qetrani, who sounds more whole-hearted in his support for the rebels. “He’s forcing me to intervene,” he says of Colonel Qaddafi from an operations room in Benghazi, after receiving the latest news of an air raid on Ras Lanuf’s water tank. But even Major Qetrani seems loth to wage all-out war against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. “It would create two Libyan armies, it would makefitna [civil war], it would ruin our infrastructure and set our country back 100 years,” he says.
Whereas the front line is thin and shaky, there is a security vacuum in Benghazi. The east-based units of army, which at first declared for the rebels, have retired to their bases and are loth to guard government buildings and institutions against pro-Qaddafi forces. “We want the army to defend the liberated cities,” says a member of the national council. “But they have not been playing their part.” The gates of four of the eastern zone’s main arsenals have remained open since four of Colonel Qaddafi’s brigades fled to the government’s zone in the west. The largest, at Rajma, outside Benghazi, exploded on March 5th, reportedly killing 40 people. After the blast, young thawar rather than the army cordoned off the surroundings.
The police are also lying low, apparently afraid of the locals’ wrath. In their absence, thethawar patrol the streets with police truncheons. Fear that Colonel Qaddafi may recover control over the whole country, including the liberated east, may be growing. A grenade was recently hurled into a Benghazi hotel full of Western journalists. At another hotel the senior managers have fled. Rumours are swirling of bombs to be planted near the court-house where the council meets. There is talk of plots to assassinate council members. In the eastern hinterland, rebels have hoisted the old tricolour that was the national flag before Colonel Qaddafi took power in 1969. But few of Benghazi’s people are brave enough to fly it on their houses.
The rebels are patently ill-equipped. “Our tanks and artillery are derelict,” says a special-forces officer who defected to the rebels. “They were kept simply for national pageants.” The arms dumps abandoned by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces in the east have ammunition but no guns. The rebels have only half a dozen or so out-of-date aircraft—without bombs. Grand plans for an amphibious landing to relieve Misrata, the beleaguered rebel-held town sandwiched between the colonel’s two strongholds, Tripoli and Sirte, his home town, have apparently been shelved.
Despite his superior numbers and firepower on land, sea and in the air, the colonel seems mainly to be holding back for now. After failing to recapture the oil terminals at Brega and Ras Lanuf, he has apparently laid a ring of landmines to defend Sirte and deployed a brigade there, led by one of his sons, Saadi.
After weeks of demonstrations, Tripoli is once again said to be quiet. The colonel controls Libya’s western border and nearby gasfields. Much depends on the loyalty of Libya’s tribes. Omar Hariri, from the powerful Farjani tribe, has been made head of the rebels’ military council, in the hope of stirring strife with Colonel Qaddafi’s own clan around Sirte. But the colonel has long been a master of tribal politics. He has been shoring up old alliances, not least by taking male hostages from the main tribes, including the Warfalla, the largest, with an implicit threat that he may kill them if their tribes rise up. The thawar say the colonel is using women and children as human shields on the front line; if they are killed, tribal codes will require their relatives to turn on the rebels. As the rebels’ dream of conquering Tripoli unaided fades, their other aim, to hold fast in the east, may begin to look optimistic too. Rebel leaders speak with foreboding of the prospect that, once the colonel has recovered his grip in the west, he may turn his tanks and aircraft to the east.
Calls by the rebel council for foreigners to come to the rescue, muted a week ago, sound increasingly desperate. Most easterners strongly oppose the idea of friendly foreign troops on the ground, but pleas for air raids against Colonel Qaddafi’s base in Tripoli—and for a no-fly zone imposed by the West—have become a lot louder.
Britain and France are tilting towards an outright demand in the UN Security Council for a no-fly zone, but the Americans are still hesitant and the Russians against. The outcome of this debate could decide the fate of Libya and its dogged colonel.