Among the Loyalists: Despite Defeat, Admiration for Gaddafi

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Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

A pro-Gaddafi loyalist is interrogated after surrendering to Libyan Rebel soldiers on August 26, 2011 in Tripoli, Libya.

When rebel forces entered the Libyan capital of Tripoli Sunday night, many Libyans celebrated. In Benghazi, small children in cars waved the rebels' flag as their parents honked horns. Outside the courthouse, people danced as fireworks lit up the sky. But not all Libyans are rejoicing. Many still harbor strong feelings for the deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi despite the atrocities his forces committed during the country's revolution.

In the Khandaq prison just outside Tripoli, a small padlock bolts a metal door to a room the size of a basketball gym. Inside, 40-odd Libyans and foreigners sit on mattresses that hug the walls. The rebels say the inmates are an assortment of Gaddafi troops and foreign mercenaries. Though most deny they fought for the ousted leader, they nevertheless expressed admiration for him.

"Gaddafi gave us freedom," boasted Walid Fath Allah. The 21 year-old explained how he came from the city of Sebha, about 400 miles south of Tripoli, along with his cousin to help fight the rebels around Aug. 6. He was given one day of military training before he was sent to the front. Gaddafi loyalists promised him $200 dollars after three months, but Fath Allah said he did not take up arms for the money. "I believed in him. I wanted to help him squash those fighting him." The dark-skinned man who looked hardly older than a teenager explained that though Arab satellite channels showed pictures of rebel fighters who looked much like other Libyans, he still believed Gaddafi when he declared them to be foreign terrorists.

Fath Allah noted that his support for Gaddafi was not an isolated case. Despite the fact that Sebha suffered electricity and water shortages during the six month revolution, he recalled how many of its residents still backed Gaddafi all the way to his fall.

Fath Allah's story is not surprising. Ever since Gaddafi's revolution 42 years ago, he favored Sebha and the villages around it. The Libyan leader showered the impoverished area with lavish funds and infrastructure projects. But Gaddafi's motives were far from altruistic. The monarchy his revolutionary comrades overthrew drew its backing from the eastern areas around Benghazi, leaving the new leader wary of its notables and residents. Gaddafi sought to create an alternative base of support. His long time deputy Abd al-Salam Jalud hailed from the area and persuaded Gaddafi to draw his security forces from the region's population.

His decision paid off during this new revolution. The Benghazi-based rebels never made the same type of inroads in Sebha and its environs that they did in other parts of the country.

Like Fath Allah, Hamid Dakhil comes from the vicinity of Sebha. The 29 year-old former soldier was born in Shati, about 40 miles north of Sebha. He related how a number of young men from his area decided to travel to Tripoli to join Gaddafi's forces. Much like Sebha, the city was plagued by long gas lines and a lack of food supplies. But the hardships did not persuade its residents to turn on their beleaguered leader. "We only knew Gaddafi from childhood," he declared as rebel soldiers brought his fellow prisoners stacks of tin foil wrapped trays filled with rice and dates. "Our parents told us he was a good man and he built the city."

It is not only people from Libya's southern provinces that profess admiration for a leader despised by most of the world. On a street corner in the Gargaresh quarter of Tripoli, a man who refused to tell a foreigner his last name fiddled with his cellphone. "Gaddafi was a good man," said Umar. Inside a nearby grocery store, people were stocking up on bottled water, a necessity since the capital's water supply has been cut. "These people," he said pointing to young men armed with Russian Kalashnikovs and Belgian FN rifles, "I don't know what they will do."

Though Gaddafi has lost his capital and President Barack Obama said the Libyan leader and his cohorts "need to recognize his rule has come to an end," the strongman's supporters continue to battle rebel forces in cities such as Bin Jawad and Zuwara. And with Libyans like Fath Allah and Dakhil still willing to support a man the world has written off, it may be some time before the fight in the country ends.