Sert: The Desert City That Holds Gaddafi's Destiny

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Reza / Webistan / Corbis

A mural of Gaddafi in Sert

The rebel forces in Benghazi have their eyes set on Tripoli, contemplating military action to take the Libyan capital if necessary. But if that goal is to be reached, they must move westward. And smack in the middle of their path will be the coastal city of Sert, which is the both the birthplace of Muammar Gaddafi and the heartland of his tribe, the Qadhadfa. Expect fierce and fearsome resistance if the rebels attack. "This really is the heartland of the regime," says Bruce St. John, author of seven books on Libya. "This would be a real prize for the opposition, but he clearly will defend it to the end, if he can."

"There's been a lot of money spent on that town since Gaddafi took over. It's a very well developed place now compared to what it was 40, 50 years ago. It's not a fortress by any means, but you probably won't find internal disloyalty within the town that would create a problem for its defense. Everyone there is pretty much a Gaddafi loyalist," says Andrew McGregor, a North African military expert with the Jamestown Foundation. Not only is the population of Sert considered exceptionally loyal, but Gaddafi has a large garrison stationed there. And there is an even bigger one — Hun military base — 150 miles south, which could easily reinforce the city or thwart rebels going south to try to circumvent Sert, a move that would bring them into open desert, making them vulnerable to attack from loyalist forces, says McGregor.

The rebels will need help to take Sert. "I don't think the opposition can capture Sert without help from the U.S., the U.K. or NATO," says Camille Tawil, a North African expert based in London. "Gaddafi has enough forces there to defend, if not to push them further away."

Historically, Sert was a poor settlement in a largely nomadic area, without a productive agricultural base (a reason why, unlike the Benghazi and Tripoli areas, the region was never settled by the ancient Greeks and Romans). Gaddafi's parents, lowly members of the relatively small and poor Qadhadfa tribe, were livestock herders, moving about the vast desert to the south of Sert. When he was 8 or 9, Gaddafi left the desert and went to live with his cousin in Sert, where he got his first formal education, before going to the military academy in Sabha in the south.

During Gaddafi's childhood in the 1950s, and even into the 1960s, many residents of the Sert area made their livelihood collecting scrap metal left over from the World War II desert battle sites, according to British scholar Tim Niblock, one of the very few foreigners who has visited Gaddafi there. Where his family once lived in tents a half-hour's drive south of Sert, Gaddafi has constructed a large multibuilding concrete compound known as Bu-Hadi, or Place of Quietness. Niblock had gone there to try to persuade Gaddafi to turn over the accused bomber of Pan Am Flight 103 (which blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988) to the Hague in a deal hatched by the U.S. and Britain in 1998.

"This is a retreat for him but also one of his two main residences," says Niblock. "It reminds him of his childhood." The other key residence Gaddafi keeps is the heavily fortified Bab Al-Aziziya military camp south of Tripoli.

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