Ibrahim Salem clutches a half-century-old pistol — a tiny weapon with a single bullet left. If not for his helmet, the young man in jeans would look every bit the English student he was up until just a few weeks ago.
Moammar Gadhafi has ruled Libya since long before the 25-year-old was born, and he hates the dictator enough to risk his life by fighting for the ragtag rebel force battling government troops along a desolate highway on the North African country’s Mediterranean coast.
“I will fight forever. I will die or win, like Omar Mukhtar,” said Salem, invoking the legendary Libyan hero who fought Italian occupiers in the 1930s, was ultimately executed, and has become a symbol for the new revolutionaries.
The front-line force trying to advance toward Gadhafi’s stronghold in the capital Tripoli is surprisingly small. Not counting supporters who bolster them in the towns along their path, it is estimated at 1,500 at most — Libyans from all walks of life, from students and coffeeshop owners to businessmen who picked up whatever weapons they could and joined the fight. No one seems to know their full size, and they could be picking up new members all the time.
Its ramshackle nature explains the dramatic lurches the fighting has taken. Last week, they took control over a stretch of Mediterranean coastal land that included major oil installations in the ports of Brega and Ras Lanouf. They charged enthusiastically further west, reaching within a few dozen miles of Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, a bastion of support for the leader of 41 years.
There they ran smack into an overwhelming pro-Gadhafi force that over the following days drove them back to Ras Lanouf. Fighting Thursday illustrated the fragility of the untrained volunteer army: Under a barrage from government tanks, ships and artillery, hundreds of them broke and fled Ras Lanouf in a frantic retreat. That left only the more disciplined pro-rebellion military units to hold onto the oil port.
On Friday, the two sides were locked in a fierce battle over Ras Lanouf and if the government prevails, the rebels gains in capturing the whole east of the country could be in danger.
The rebel force is a leaderless collection of volunteers, operating in an evolving collaboration with soldiers who deserted various units over the past month and are still be trying to organize themselves. It’s not clear who, if anyone is giving orders.
Many of the fighters come from Benghazi, the main city in the rebel-controlled eastern half of the country. They are united by hatred for Gadhafi and a burning desire to overthrow him and establish a state under the rule of law.
Their command structure is loose at best. There is an operations room for the mutinous military units who are trying to organize their disparate elements. But that operations center has a very tenuous connection to the freelance, volunteer militiamen.
The mutinous military component — said to include some colonels and majors — is taking an increasingly active role in the fighting at the front, on occasion issuing commands that were generally heeded. Army officers were sent a few days ago to work with the revolutionaries to make them better. Orders appear to just filter down.
The volunteer militiamen largely have been acting and reacting as a pack to government assaults, launching initiatives wherever they can. They ride around in dozens of pickup trucks, some with machine guns and anti-aircraft guns strapped to the back. Some rebels have weapons, while others seem hardly able to operate a gun.
Sometimes the rebels seem to be almost suicidally rushing into oncoming fire. But while they may lack organization, passion is in plentiful supply. That, combined with widespread distaste for Gadhafi in the east of the country, helped them quickly take over half the coastline, with key oil and population centers, in the early days of the revolt last month.
The chaotic nature of the rebellion is striking considering the supremely high stakes — the future of Libya.
A jittery world is watching rapt as a wider regional revolt sweeps Arab authoritarians from Tunisia to Bahrain — both concerned and self-interested as oil prices soar and a humanitarian disaster threatens to bring a new wave of refugees and migrants to the West.
During some chilly mornings at the checkpoint in Ras Lanouf, the volunteers spew hatred for Gadhafi. Every one could recite a litany of grievances, whether a disappeared relative, a stint in prison, or even more mundane concerns.
“I’m 32 years old and I have no car, no work, no house and no marriage,” said Hussein al-Awami, an unemployed man who came to front without a weapon, confident he could pick one up in a battle. “I have no connections. I wasn’t a member of the revolutionary councils or the revolutionary guard — Gadhafi’s people. This how it is for all people in Libya.”
“After 42 years of oppression, I’d just had enough,” agreed Mohammed Howeidi, a 25-year-old wearing a stocking cap, a sweater and a carrying backpack filled with rocket-propelled grenades.
In recent days the military asked volunteers to limit their forays to the front to preserve ammunition and reduce unnecessary risk.
A statement read out at the checkpoint Tuesday from several imams urged volunteer militiamen to “not embark on random movements.” And a number of volunteers even told journalists they could no longer talk to them for reasons of operational security, under instructions from the military.
The rebels hope to continue pushing west but appear to have hit a wall. Loyalist troops attack daily with artillery and rockets, as well as some airstrikes, hoping to weaken the rebels and eventually push east. It’s a one-dimensional fight along a single main artery that runs parallel to the sea, sometimes with two lanes and at other points, near cities, turning into a divided highway of four; other roads are desert paths and mostly unpassable.
The government force facing the rebels is certainly more professional and more impressively equipped: they have planes and helicopters, heavy weaponry and tanks. But its size is unclear: it may be scarcely larger than the rebel force. Based in nearby Sirte, some 100 miles (160 kilometers) west, the army force is itself cut off from the capital, and it may be facing its own divisions from within.
Because of the dearth of weapons the volunteers rotate at the front. Salem, on an off-day, is eager to rejoin the battle. His weapon is a small 6mm pistol, given to his policeman father by the Italian colonizers in 1958. Having shot all but one of his bullets in the battle for Benghazi, he’s “waiting for my friend to bring me more bullets.”
The volunteers are a mostly young group from different backgrounds. Some, like Salem, just wear street clothes — jeans, sneakers, sweatshirts. Others look more like revolutionaries dress in olive drab fatigues, berets and a checkered scarves or keffiyehs around their necks. Many favor camouflage, especially U.S. Army surplus from the 1990 Desert Storm campaign and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Because Libya has compulsory military service, many men have had some degree of military training.
Their weapons vary from including heavy machine-guns and assault rifles, to machetes or small knives.
Mohammed Benghizzi, a 27-year-old mechanical engineer, has a Kalashnikov — but he shares it with a friend, taking turns in the fight. He said he taught himself to use the Kalashnikov which he got from the storming of a military barracks in Benghazi.
Others had to buy them, and the market in weapons is thriving. Some say the price of a Kalashnikov has quadrupled to more than $3,000.
At a checkpoint near the front, a preacher stalked around the men, shouting encouragement into a loudspeaker and whipping everyone into a frenzy. The volunteers cheered and fired their weapons into the air. One man, lacking a gun, hacked away with a machete at an empty wooden ammo box.
That evening, following an hours-long battle, a pickup truck pulled away from the checkpoint carrying four bodies. The volunteers cheered and chanted, “A martyr’s blood is not spilled in vain!” Some fired their weapons into the air for 10 minutes straight — a waste of precious ammunition in the eyes of the more disciplined army rebels.
Salem, the former student, left his English studies in Benghazi last week, pretty much on a whim, to take a bus down to the front at Ras Lanouf.
With his outsize helmet and undersize gun, he seemed to speak for them all.
“My parents are worried about me. But if you want freedom you have to work hard or die. If I die now, it is OK, because others will live in freedom.”