The Rebel Road to Tripoli: There Will Be Blood

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Sergey Ponomarev / AP

Rebel fighters look towards the enemy as they hear the sound of bombardments in the village of Mayah, some 30 kilometers west from Tripoli, LIbya, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011.

Libya's rebel fighters inched ever closer to Muammar Gaddafi's stronghold of Tripoli on Sunday, fighting pitched battles with regime forces just 20 miles or so short of the capital, as they vowed to take the capital within days. After not hearing from him in several weeks, Libyans awoke on Sunday morning to a short, crackling phone call from Gaddafi broadcast on state-run television. Sounding like a hunted, broken man, clinging to his last shred of authority after almost 42 years in power, he said from his hideout that "the masses" had repelled the rebels outside Tripoli and "eliminated them." "Go forward, go forward, go forward," he said in a soft voice, before hanging up the telephone on air.

Gaddafi did not bid farewell, but then he hardly needed to: Most Libyans and much of the rest of the world already appear to regard him as a defeated man. Tens of thousands of rebel supporters jammed Benghazi's central square on Saturday night in anticipation of Gaddafi's rapid defeat in Tripoli, spurred by the capture on Friday of the oil-refinery town of Zawiyah just 46 kilometers (28 miles) west of the capital. That victory put opposition forces closer to winning the war than they have seemed to be for months. Opposition forces said on Sunday that government soldiers had opened fire on a column of their fighters near Jedaim, a village about 20 miles from Tripoli, according to the Associated Press. Meanwhile the deputy chairman of the opposition National Transition Council, Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, told Reuters that the rebels had begun coordinating a final battle in the capital, with "rebels approaching from the east, west and south."

For both sides, control of Zawiyah is crucial to that final battle, since the city's large oil facility has for months been the sole reliable source of refined gasoline for Tripoli and Gaddafi's supporters. In stark contrast to the ecstatic crowds in Benghazi, just a few dozen Gaddafi supporters cheered for their leader on Saturday night, waving posters of him in Tripoli's virtually deserted Green Square. There were reports of gunfights on several Tripoli streets on Saturday night, which could be heard loudly from the Rixos Hotel, where foreign networks are broadcasting on the roof. And as if the enemies were right on the doorstep, a presenter on Libyan Television in Tripoli brandished a machine gun on the air on Sunday, vowing to fight off those who tried to seize the station, which has become Gaddafi's sole way of communicating with the outside world. "I either kill or die today," the presenter fumed, thumping the weapon above her head. "You will not take our Libya channel... We are willing to become martyrs."

On paper, a rebel victory looks tantalizingly close. In peace time, Zawiyah is a short drive from Tripoli. Many people commute between the two. And without Zawiyah's refined fuel, Gaddafi's forces could find it difficult to keep its military vehicles on the roads, an essential factor in their military campaign.

But the reality could be more complicated. Between Zawiyah and Green Square lies Tripoli's populated ex-urbs, rather than easily-traversed countryside. Last March, when Gaddafi's forces routed rebel units from Zawiyah, government officials drove TIME and other journalists back and forth from Tripoli twice, once for midnight celebrations in a soccer stadium and the second time to view the ravaged central square weeks of vicious fighting had raged. Each journey took less than half an hour, and much of it wound through narrow streets with dwellings on both sides, which could be perilous for the rebels to maneuver. Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Tripoli, said that it was misleading for rebel supporters to describe "the road open to Tripoli." "It conjures up images of open countryside but in fact it's a built-up area," he says. "If there's determined resistance it could be very difficult."

Part of the risk is the lack of reliable intelligence from within Tripoli, leaving rebels uncertain of what battle lies ahead. Foreign journalists have been under virtual lockdown in the five-star Rixos Hotel in Tripoli for months, fed only government propaganda. Opposition media has long been banned in Gaddafi's Libya, and foreign embassies have been shut for months; Britain's Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt told the BBC on Saturday that a handful of Britons still in Tripoli would be evacuated by boat to Malta on Sunday. In addition, opposition accounts could also be unreliable, including their declarations that Tripoli residents have begun to rise up in numbers. Foreign journalists in Tripoli on Saturday went to check Twitter rumors that the city's airport had been seized by rebels, but found no signs of battle, according to a posting by one of them on Facebook. A rebel commander, Col. Fadlallah Haroun, told Al Jazeera on Sunday that "the fighters in Tripoli are rising up in two places at the moment."

With virtually no independent observers moving freely in Tripoli, Dalton believes it is almost impossible to gauge accurately the rebels' support in Tripoli or their ability to coordinate action there, or to calculate how many weapons or fuel supplies Gaddafi might have stockpiled during the past few months in readiness for a last-ditch battle in the capital. "The rebels say they are in contact with people inside Tripoli, but whether it is extensive or one or two people, nobody has a clue," Dalton says. And with no negotiations for a ceasefire underway, he says, "the prospect of fighting in Tripoli over a long period is pretty ghastly."

Indeed, even with the rebels a short distance from the capital, Libya watchers warn that the opposition celebrations could be premature. Tales from Tripoli were a lot grimmer than the rebels portrayed on Sunday, according to one Zawiyah resident, who told the Wall Street Journal there that regime forces had fired on residents who came out on to the streets of the capital in support of the rebel fighters. "Gaddafi's soldiers are using heavy weapons and killing the people who came out into the streets," he told the Journal after speaking by phone to friends in Tripoli. "They [opposition supporters in Tripoli] don't have heavy weapons so they can't sustain their fight for a long time."

At a meeting in London last Thursday of about 30 Libya experts, many concluded that the regime's final defeat could be weeks, even months, rather than days, away — and that the final battle for Tripoli could be bloody. One participant with extensive Libya experience told TIME that "the general mood at our meeting was that it was going to take a little while yet." "We shouldn't assume it will be over in a matter of days," said the man, who spoke under the meeting's rules of anonymity. "There are still very small forces at play on the opposition side, and the degree to which Tripoli is ready to rise is very much unknown."