Updated: March 7, 2011, 8:50 a.m. E.T.
Noon prayer at the Ajdabiyah checkpoint is ominous. Thick white rain clouds and the whipped yellow swirls of a sandstorm move across the face of the shrub-studded desert. But no one here is praying. The rumble of what many believe is an enemy warplane somewhere overhead mingles with the thunder of the impending rainstorm. The rebels shout to one another across a landscape littered with bullet casings and debris, then let loose with round after round of anti-aircraft fire. A fighter 100 feet away launches a surface-to-air missile at the invisible target above. As everyone waits for death or a distant boom, the rain starts to fall.
The storm sweeps away the threat, until the next time it appears in the sky or up the road.
For most of the men on the ever shifting front line in Libya's revolution turned civil war, it's their first taste of war. They are low-ranking soldiers, technically mutineers from the military of Muammar Gaddafi, and volunteer fighters wearing mismatched army fatigues, their heads and faces wrapped in checkered red or yellow kaffiyehs. Light of experience, they nevertheless man the heavy weapons that the revolutionary army has seeded along the main highway that traces Libya's coastline and links the rebel capital of Benghazi to Tripoli, Gaddafi's capital in the west.
At rebel checkpoints along that road, the mood shifts erratically from confidence to jubilation to utter panic. The newly armed and barely experienced force fires off bullets and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) constantly, and at random. "There is a relatively large number of casualties from friendly fire," says a doctor in Brega, the petroleum-refinery center captured by the rebels last week; one person died after his RPG misfired. In a week, the rebels managed to advance westward from Ajdabiyah, which is 100 miles south of Benghazi, taking Brega, then the oil town of Ras Lanuf.
But almost as soon as Ras Lanuf was captured and celebrations broke out, the rebels were repulsed when they pushed into Bin Jawad, a town 50 miles west on the road. On March 6, regime forces bombarded them with tank shells, RPGs, gunfire and air strikes from planes and helicopters, sending the disorderly force fleeing eastward, back to Ras Lanuf. Gaddafi's air force followed the rebels. A lack of leadership and general anarchy are still the defining characteristics of eastern Libya's fledgling military.
The towns Ajdabiyah, Brega and Ras Lanuf may turn out to be small triumphs for a force that consists largely of a disorganized mass of oil workers, day laborers and schoolteachers and that is facing off against a well-armed military. The next major mark on the map, which stands between the rebels and Gaddafi's capital, is the regime stronghold of Sert, Gaddafi's hometown and his government has made it clear it has no intention of letting the rebels go there. Behind rebel lines, talk of an impending battle for Sert makes opposition leaders nervous. "The difficulty is that Sert is well armed, and the revolutionaries have only light weapons," says Colonel Lamin Abdel Wahab, a member of the rebels' military council in Benghazi. It will most likely be the first real test of the rebels' skill and drive.
The provisional government in Benghazi says it needs time and reinforcements but insists that it is making progress nonetheless. To oversee the ramshackle force, the newly formed National Council appointed a Defense Minister, Omar Hariri, a former general who led an unsuccessful revolt against Gaddafi in 1975. Military officers in Benghazi says Hariri's appointment will signal a shift to a more organized fighting force.
For the moment, the motley army has an overwhelming, undisciplined spirit in the place of military organization. The young men whoop and yell and set off celebratory gunfire with the slightest excuse. At a checkpoint in Brega on March 4, a blast of heavy machine-gun fire shattered the desert silence even as some men tried to restrain the exuberance of their younger compatriots. Wanis Kilani, an engineer turned volunteer fighter, shakes his head at the chaos. "So much 'Blah blah blah,' " he says. "You know, we can't prevent them from coming here because they all want to help even the crazy, the young, even sick people want to help." He explains, mostly to himself, that it's a people's army coming together. "We are not rebels," he says. "We are mujahedin."
The word is a loaded one for Westerners, a reminder of the holy warriors of Afghanistan who turned from fighting the Soviet Union to aiding Osama bin Laden. But it bears weight in liberated east Libya as well. Islamic scholars here have said that pious Muslim men in particular were persecuted under Gaddafi, and they may yet be a vocal and determined force in the fight to bring down the dictator. "He tried to stop people from going to dawn prayer because people who do this are very devout," says Sheik Abdel Hamid Ma'toub, a religious leader in Benghazi. "He knows that the most dangerous people in Libya are those who go to dawn prayers." That's because, he says, the men who pray fear God, not Gaddafi.