Libya's Ragtag Rebels: Why They Fight

Who are they, and can Operation Odyssey Dawn help these amateur warriors defeat Gaddafi?

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Lybian rebels rest outside of Ajdabiyah.

Remember "Comical Ali," the Iraqi Information Minister who claimed that Saddam Hussein's troops were winning the war even as U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad? Meet his Benghazi cousin, Khaled al-Sayeh. It's three days into Operation Odyssey Dawn, and the military spokesman for the Libyan rebels is brimming with bravado. Thanks in part to the allied aerial campaign, with sorties flown by seven nations, he tells journalists that rebel forces have regained control of two of the four main entrances to the strategic town of Ajdabiyah, which they lost to Muammar Gaddafi's troops the previous week. Now, he says, the rebels are bypassing the enemy and cutting off its supply route. Soon, he promises, the government troops will run out of ammunition. "We are surrounding Gaddafi's forces," he says.

Consulting no notes, al-Sayeh rattles off a string of statistics that suggest the war is going against the tyrant in Tripoli: Rebels and allied airpower have destroyed all but 11 of the 80 tanks that had been moving on Benghazi; 10 have been captured intact, along with 20 pickup trucks, two armored vehicles and another fitted with radar gear. Anywhere from 400 to 600 government troops have been killed.

It all sounds most reassuring, until you drive to the front line between the rebels and government forces. There, 6 miles (10 km) from Ajdabiyah, the mood among rebel fighters is more tentative than triumphant. They are poorly armed. They have AK-47s, a few heavy machine guns mounted on trucks and some rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. Buffeted by a desert wind that whips sand into their eyes, young men in cars and pickup trucks stage impromptu cavalry charges toward the enemy, only to fall back in panic when fired upon. For all al-Sayeh's boasting, Gaddafi's loyalists still have plenty of tanks and artillery.

"We went about three or four kilometers forward ... but then we came back because they were bombarding us," says Ayman Salem, 27, an unemployed laborer from the port of Shahat who is clothed in camouflage fatigues and perched next to an antiaircraft gun lashed to a truck bed. His comrades-in-arms are a 26-year-old auto mechanic and a 21-year-old day laborer, both from Benghazi. Their truck is among the scores of rebel vehicles parked at odd angles along the highway, waiting.

Waiting for what, exactly? Not for a command from higher authority: there is none. There are no radioed instructions from headquarters in Benghazi and no senior officer on the spot to devise a battle plan. The next attack will take place when the driver of one of the vehicles gets a rush of blood to his head and roars off in the direction of Ajdabiyah. Perhaps others may feel inspired to follow.

Salem, however, won't be among them. He's discovered the futility of such charges. While their guardian angels at 30,000 ft. (9,100 m) have the best missiles and bombs money can buy, the rebels are woefully outgunned on the ground. Pointing to his gun, Salem says, "There is no comparison between this and [the enemy's] Grad missiles." He didn't bother to fire it on his brief foray forward, because the Gaddafi loyalists were far out of range. "We launched a rocket. We had one," he says, with a desultory shrug.

The Ragtag Army
Operation Odyssey Dawn is meant to stop Gaddafi's advance and give his opposition the opportunity to regroup and resume its march to Tripoli. But on the evidence from opposition headquarters in Benghazi and from the front line, it will take a great deal more to turn the ragtag rebels into a fighting force capable of taking Gaddafi down. Although the assault on Benghazi has been halted, government troops have lost little ground and continue to pound key towns like Misratah and Zintan. In Tripoli, allied aerial attacks on military installations and the dictator's compound have curbed some of the pro-Gaddafi demonstrations. Residents venture outdoors less often. But the attacks have not curbed Gaddafi's bellicose rhetoric. After dropping out of sight for the first few days, he made a public appearance on March 23, proclaiming before a small group of loyalists, "I am here. I am here. I am here."

Gaddafi's defiance stems mainly from his confidence that the rebels — or "germs," as he calls them — are no match for his troops. That assessment is shared by Western experts. "What we have, basically, are rebels that have a great deal of enthusiasm and who are willing to risk their lives but don't have discipline or structure," says Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Even the swaggering al-Sayeh knows this. A day before his triumphal press conference, he painted a far more dismal picture of the rebels' capabilities. "The officers and commanders have no control over the youth who are pushing the front line," he said bitterly. "They don't take orders from anyone."

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