Libya's Rebels: Taking the Fight to Gaddafi, with Help

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Suhaib Salem / Reuters

Libyan rebels celebrate on the road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah on March 21, 2011

East Libya's rebels are fighters, but they're not an army. As forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi continue to rain Grad missiles and tank shells on rebel positions about 10 km north of Ajdabiyah, most of the rebel fighters seem less than willing to charge forward, despite the frantic urging of some of their peers. "Move! Move, everyone!" shouts a volunteer fighter standing on the roof of a car several kilometers from the battle zone, where crowds of men have gathered on Monday morning. He speaks through an old bullhorn in an effort to mobilize the boisterous group of mostly unarmed men and boys who shout excitedly back at him. "I know that many of you are civilians, but you have the courage to go and protect," he says.

A few groups of fighters heed the call, packing into trucks bearing mounted machine guns and carrying rocket-propelled grenades as they speed forward into the danger zone amid cheers and gunfire. But most continue to mill around on the desert road, waiting — it seems — for the party that follows the action.

Many of the men who have flocked to the stalemated front line that now hovers between 10 km and 20 km from Ajdabiyah's north gate are little more than war tourists. Some have gone to survey the twisted wreckage of Gaddafi's tanks strewn along the route after allied air strikes tore them apart on Saturday night. Others have been brought by the momentum of false hopes and information — in some cases speeding unwittingly into a bombardment of tank shells because they heard Ajdabiyah had been liberated. Among them are teenagers, and even a few boys. They wear sandals, skinny jeans and hooded sweatshirts. A few wear the rebel flag as a cape.

"I am here to defend Benghazi," says Muatasim Billah Mohamed, waiting with a crowd of young men on the roadside some 5 km from where the shells are falling. He has gone all the way from Tobruk and has a flag tied around his head like a bandanna, but carries no weapon. God will protect him, he says, pointing to the sky.

Others point to the sky to signify salvation from allied warplanes, expecting to see more wreckage of Gaddafi's armor. "People now are waiting for the planes to hit Gaddafi's forces," explains Ahmed al-Faytoori, a former government bureaucrat, waiting beside his truck on the road. "The revolutionaries cannot proceed without the air strikes because we have very light weapons."

He has approached the front with a vague intention of fighting Gaddafi, but makes no indication that he plans to move forward into the fray. "There are people here who are prepared to do suicide missions against Gaddafi's forces, to shake them if the airplanes don't come," he says. "But it's necessary for the planes to come so the rebels can move into Ajdabiyah, and after Ajdabiyah, Ras Lanuf."

The roar of fighter jets had inspired fear in many of the volunteer fighters and local townspeople along this road less than a week ago. Now it generates excitement. "Air strikes," a group of young men cheered from a sand dune on Sunday, as explosions to the south sent white clouds of smoke into the air. They turned out to be incoming tank shells, and an older fighter urged them to go down from the dune where he said they were vulnerable.

On Monday, the roar of the warplanes has filled many of those gathered with hope and expectation, but the strikes on Gaddafi's forces defending the approach to Ajdabiyah never seem to arrive. And as the braver ones press forward into shelling despite their inferior weapons, the war tourists who stay behind get a glimpse of the real horror as well.

At mid-morning, one group of men in a pickup roars back up to the checkpoint, attracting a crowd of hysterical men and boys as they unload a blood-soaked mattress piled with bits of human flesh. It belongs to a man who had just been torn apart by an exploding shell. The crowd chants, "There is no God but God," as they rush to bury the body parts in the sand. Others — injured and dead — are hauled toward Benghazi throughout the day, past the onlookers. And more often than not, the spectacle seems to convince most of those gathered there that waiting is a better option than charging at tanks with infantry weapons.

"They are hitting people with Grad missiles," says one man gesturing in the direction of Ajdabiyah and taking a bite out of a muffin. He'll wait for allied air strikes before courting death down the road, he says. Then: "God willing, we will march on Sirte and Bab al-Aziziya, because we can't go back to living under Gaddafi."

Back in Benghazi, the leaders of the so-called Free East Libyan army are frustrated, admitting that they exercise little control over the army of volunteers and the war tourists who gather to watch. "The youth advanced today, and it was spontaneous, as always. They don't take orders from anyone," says Khaled al-Sayeh, the military council's spokesman. "If it was up to the regular military, the advance by the youth today would not have happened." But where the "regular military" is, no one seems able or willing to say.

For weeks, defecting officers and members of the rebel National Transitional Council trumpeted the growing military prowess of the opposition, consolidated by professional officers and soldiers who had joined its ranks. But many seem to have melted away during the government assault that shook Benghazi over the weekend. The tanks supposedly captured from Gaddafi's forces have failed to make an appearance on the rebels' front line. And al-Sayeh says that rebel special forces exist — you just can't see them.

While Benghazi is eerily quiet by day, it is wracked by odd explosions and gunfire at night. (At least one rebel activist admits that some of the violence could be playing out between confused groups of rebels hunting government cells. "It has happened a couple of times, but thankfully nobody was injured," says Shamsiddin Abdulmolah.)

Most shops in the city remain shuttered and few pedestrians move through the streets. Checkpoints are few and manned by civilians. And the headquarters of the rebels' transitional government has nearly emptied of its usual swarm of activists and revolutionary officials. Fears of pro-Gaddafi cells working inside the city have kept many indoors, some say. Other members of the rebels' national council appear to have gone into hiding after one prominent activist, Mohamed Nabous, was assassinated in his car on Saturday night, shot in the head at close range.

"The very active people who have been here since the beginning are afraid" because their faces are now known, says Najla Elmangoush, a criminal-law professor and activist at the council. Her friends urged her to remove the rebel flag from her car to avoid being targeted, she adds. "That is the big concern in Benghazi — more than the [government's] military outside because they can't reach us," she says. "The ones on the inside are the dangerous ones."

Later on Monday, a trickle of activists and rebel officials return to their headquarters at the high court on Benghazi's Mediterranean coastal road. But they have little information on what has transpired at the front line, or where the more experienced ranks of the rebel military have gone. In separate interviews, they contradict each other on matters of the front line's actual location, where their leaders are working from, whether or not there is communication with allied forces over air strikes, and whether there have been more air strikes.

"Our formal army is probably better organized now than it was before," says Essam Giriyani, one of the council members. But where is the formal army? He turns to his colleagues to ask them in Arabic. "It's a battle without any organization," mumbles another.