Libya's War of the Colonels: Col. Gaddafi Meet Col. Hussein

  • Share
  • Read Later
David Degner / Zumapress

Colonel Tarek Saad Hussein, one of the leaders of the opposition in Bengazi, Libya.

At a former Army Air Defense base in a darkened, partially constructed neighborhood of Benghazi, Colonel Tarek Saad Hussein is readying the revolutionary forces for the ultimate battle. Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi will likely fight to the death in order to keep control of his capital Tripoli, according to soldiers and revolutionary activists alike. But the banners in front of Benghazi's High Court read: "Libya, one body. Tripoli, our heart." The east is now under opposition control, but Libya will not split, they say: the revolution is not over until Tripoli is won and a dictator is toppled.

The liberation of Tripoli has become the battle cry in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city. "We will never abandon Tripoli," shouted the Imam who led Friday's open-air noon prayer. In response, a chorus of "God is Great!" rose from the thousands who had gathered beneath the stormy Mediterranean skies to pray.

For Colonel Hussein, who sits in a stark office within a darkened base equipped with anti-aircraft guns, Libya's revolution is still very much a people's revolution. But the military that has defected to the opposition — more than 10,000 troops from Benghazi to the Egyptian border, he says — now have an important task at hand. "We are trying to collect as many as we can from Benghazi and other towns in order to prepare a force to march on Tripoli," he says.

Hussein is coordinating with other military officers, tribal sheikhs, and volunteers across the region, he says, to launch the final battle that many believe may be necessary to topple the 41-year-old dictatorship. Already, Hussein says 2,000 armed volunteers, soldiers and reservists have reached the capital in small groups, the last group arriving on Friday night. Soon, he says, there will be more.

But it's not a military coup, he cautions. "It's a youth uprising," he insists. "The fight is between the young people and the regime." It wasn't until Gaddafi met their peaceful demonstrations with violent force "killing them in cold blood," that it was time to intervene, he says. "They are the ones who started the revolution and we are completing it."

And inevitably, the military will have a big role to play in the aftermath of Gaddafi's fall. "We hope to have a democratic state, not a military state," Hussein says. "We are fed up with a military state. The military is only for protecting the nation — not for ruling it."

But to get there, the revolutionary forces will most certainly have to capture the capital, which means getting past the Gaddafi stronghold of Sert, and past the superior weaponry of Gaddafi's loyalist forces and mercenaries in Tripoli itself. In recent days, Hussein has been placing calls to military officers and residents in Sert, which stands in between Benghazi and Tripoli. "We don't want to treat them as they were treated before," he says, meaning inhumanely. "And we don't want to behave like killers. So we made an appeal, as a warning, to allow us to move freely toward Tripoli."

In the past week, the eastern revolutionaries say, Gaddafi has been losing control of his country, one piece at a time. His forces, diplomats, ministers, and bureaucrats have fallen away. There is unity among the rebels, he says, as well as increasing determination to reach the end game. "We are preparing ourselves, and we will march to Tripoli to bombard Bab Bin Gashin," Hussein says, referring to Gaddafi's Tripoli stronghold where he believes the ruler is hiding. "We have planes and pilots who were assigned by Gaddafi to bomb Benghazi, but who refused and landed here safely. We have pilots who are ready to crash their planes in a suicidal way if necessary."

Is the ultimate plan to kill Gaddafi, as many eager revolutionaries along the Mediterranean coast say? Hussein peers up over his rectangular reading glasses and offers a wry smile: "We hope to catch him alive."

On Friday evening, Gaddafi delivered another defiant speech before a crowd of supporters in Tripoli. He vowed to "open up the arsenals" and to defeat his opposition. But Hussein didn't have time to see it because he was too busy planning the days ahead. "This isn't a football match," he says. And he's not afraid of the man in Tripoli.

No one expects Gaddafi to go quietly. His remaining forces are well-equipped, and his son Khamees' battalion includes an estimated 3,000 troops, about half of whom are mercenaries, Hussein says. On Thursday, Libya's now ex-Justice Minister Mustafa Mohamed Abd el-Jalil told al-Jazeera that he believes Gaddafi has chemical and nuclear weapons. Hussein isn't worried. "There are no nuclear weapons," he says dismissively. And Gaddafi's once fearsome stock of chemical weapons? "All that stuff was handed over during the Lockerbie deal," says Hussein, referring to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over the Scottish town and the controversial 2009 decision to repatriate a Libyan sentenced for the crime from a prison in Scotland. "He thought that by buying American support at the time, they would let him stay in power forever."

Hussein chuckles. "He forgot about the Libyan people."