Libya's Civil War: Gaddafi Forces Pound Ajdabiyah

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Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters

A Libyan rebel stands near an anti-aircraft gun at a checkpoint outside the city of Ajdabiyah, March 13, 2011

The strategy was predictable enough. When Muammar Gaddafi's forces moved to retake the strategic oil towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega, the regime started with light, sporadic bombing, hitting nothing in particular. There were rumors that the loyalists did not have real targetting capability and so tended to hit things at random. Sometimes the bombs hit nothing at all.

And so it seemed on Monday in Ajdabiyah, the next town up from Brega, the last rebel town Gaddafi had engulfed. Late Monday morning, Ajdabiyah had the eerie qualities of a ghost town. Most of the shops were closed. Traffic was thin. And a sandstorm blanketed the sleepy rebel checkpoints that appeared weakly manned. But there were small crowds on the street: men, some with children in tow, who gathered around two craters left in the dirt of a traffic circle by a morning air strike that missed its target — most likely the arms depot of a nearby military base at the western gate of the town. One other missile struck just behind the base, wounding a few men. Then in the late afternoon, a plane dropped leaflets bearing a long missive in Arabic with one basic message: "We are coming." Elaborating on that theme, it continued, "...Street to street, house to house, individual to individual."

On Tuesday morning, the bombing started in a random way as well. Three quick seemingly pointless airstrikes. One target, if that's what it was, was a car with a man in it. He died. Then, steadily and quickly, say witnesses, the bombardments increased in strength, airstrikes and artillery shells coming from the desert to the south and from the road heading west toward Brega and Ras Lanuf. Advancing slowly on the city's western and southern border for an hour and a half, the shelling then reached the city proper. Residents say there were not very many rebel fighters in sight, apparently having cleared out or heading out of the city to do battle. Less than five hours after the siege began, a mass exodus of residents and fighters were on the road, abandoning a vaunted opposition stronghold.

It was another stunning example of Gaddafi's strategy. The Ras Lanuf and Brega battles were characterized by rapid advance of ground forces following the sudden and heavy bombardment of those cities by airstrikes and artillery shells, sending the rebels fleeing. The ground forces then moved into towns that were burned and wrecked, largely abandoned in the wake of the siege. The rebels really have no defense against this strategy. They are pushed back kilometer by kilometer. They have no choice but to move backwards, leaving cities very much open for the ground troops to march in. That now seems to be happening in Ajdabiyah.

On Monday, the actual frontline of the civil war was some 30 to 120 kilometers west of Ajdabiyah, depending on who you asked. The rebel fighters were more spread out than they were the last time the front line was this close, when a mix of trigger-happy volunteers and soldiers paraded through the checkpoints with shouts and a barrage of skyward bullets, ambitiously sweeping the frontline westward, pushing it past the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf. On Tuesday, for the first time, the rebels appeared to have had uniformed and disciplined military stationed at the western checkpoint, not the hodgpodge of volunteers.

The rapid loss of over 100 miles of that recently won territory, suffered over the past several days — including both Ras Lanuf and Brega — put a more serious face on the fight for the fighters of Free Libya. The rebels insist that their real strategy is taking hold, and that trained soldiers and volunteers are finally coming into their ranks. Still, at a northern checkpoint in Ajdabiyah on Monday, two 20-somethings and an 85-year-old manning an anti-aircraft gun and a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher offered little evidence of that. "Of course this place is targeted," says Mohamed Abdel Hadi, 24, a hint perhaps that some of his comrades have decided not to remain in Ajdabiyah.

At a Sunday night press conference, the new commander of eastern Libya's armed forces, Gaddafi's former Interior Minister Abdel Fatah Younis, described the initial push forward — and the subsequent fall backwards — as little more than the products of spontaneity in desert warfare; the volunteers were running on "euphoria and enthusiasm," he said, and that carried them past Ras Lanuf and into the town of Bin Jawad. "[But] the area was poorly defended because it was too vast and the youth advanced too far without protecting their gains," he added. Now, a real army is being prepared.

But how prepared is difficult to measure, and not everyone is as confident as Younis. On Monday, at a former security headquarters in Ajdabiyah, a cluster of police officers were fearful to give their names because they say residents of the town had received threatening phone calls from the regime; the cops fear they will be targeted. The town's defense was far from prepared. "There are no preparations, to be honest with you," sighed an officer in a black coat.

"No, don't tell them that," said another.

At Ajdabiyah's revolutionary committee headquarters on Monday, Ali Faraj Hamada, a former government bureaucrat, sat at an empty, dust-covered desk, and said that he was the local man in charge — and insisted that Ajdabiyah's defense were under control. "We've deployed all over Ajdabiyah and we have two zones. We have one zone to protect the perimeter, and one zone to protect the inside." Young volunteers have been divided into groups, he said, and "every group of youth has a military person leading them."

They have supplies to last two months, he said, which is what he believes it would take for Gaddafi's forces to bombard their way through the town. "If a no-fly zone is imposed, he would never be able to get through here," Hamada adds. "The artillery, we can control. The air strikes are the hard thing."

Indeed, amid the bravado, even the most confident rebel commanders are still lobbying hard for a no-fly zone. "To us, [where the front line is] is almost insignificant until there's some air cover and some tactical strikes to put the fear of God in him," says Mustafa Giriyani, a spokesperson at the high court in Benghazi where the rebels' transitional National Council is headquartered.

In Benghazi, rebel leaders say they are in regular communication with foreign powers. A large French flag now hangs from the roof of Benghazi's courthouse, alongside the flag of free Libya, as a tribute to the first foreign government to recognize the their sovereignty. The Arab League voted to support a no-fly zone over the weekend, something Benghazi's national council hailed as a positive step.

But increasingly, from Benghazi to the front line, people are losing faith that the international community will come to their aid. And over everyone hangs the question of what happens to east Libya if there is no intervention — or if there is, and Gaddafi remains undeterred. "We need a no-fly zone to make a balance between the two forces," said Hassan Atiyalah, whose older brother was wounded by the Monday morning airstrike in Ajdabiyah. Standing outside the operating room at the town's hospital on Monday, he pondered its importance. "For me, I think Europe and the United States are hesitating. They're not taking action. They see us getting killed and they do nothing."

"People are intimidated by the airstrikes," said his other brother, Mohamed Atiyalah, who stood nearby. "After he takes over the city, we would expect a massacre."

When and if that happens is anybody's guess. Hassan believed Ajdabiyah would not fall easily. But like some others in the dusty town, he figured at least a quarter of the local population backs Gaddafi. "Maybe he gave them some money," he said.

Indeed, rumors have filtered in from Tripoli and abroad that Gaddafi's forces could capture Ajdabiyah and then move straight through the desert to Tobruk, swiftly cutting off the eastern border and isolating Benghazi and the other rebel-held towns. The rebels' commander, Younis and other council members insist the rumors are "only dreams." Ajdabiyah is too big and too important to fall, they argue, and Gaddafi lacks the manpower and the logistical support to hold the city and other parts of the east if he sweeps in. But lines of refugees leaving Ajdabiyah may be the beginning of another narrative.

Away from Ajdabiyah, in the rebel capital of Benghazi, a kind of seriousness has taken over. At one of the key military bases, where volunteers were training in a haphazard way just a couple of weeks ago, proper military officers have taken charge, men in uniforms who run a much tighter ship. They have denied press access to much of anything because they say they don't want to expose their strategy to Gaddafi. But Gaddafi's strategy is already clear to all: instilling fear and then punishing bombardments to disrupt rebel morale, getting local residents to flee, then marching in to mop up what resistance remains.