Rebels in Libya's east say they're not ready to take Tripoli

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 27, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — Military commanders in liberated eastern Libya said that while they're eager to wrest control of the capital, Tripoli, from dictator Moammar Gadhafi, they believe his personal forces are better equipped and trained than their newly cobbled together Libyan People's Army.

All they can promise the residents who are asking them to charge forward toward the capital, 600 miles to the west, is that they'll move "soon, if we get orders."

In the meantime, military leaders are sorting through looted weapons, putting new ranks on commanders who days ago served under Gadhafi, and seeking a role for the youth who took to the streets and spurred the liberation of this city, Libya's second largest.

That the army feels it can't take on Gadhafi's personal forces may portend a protracted and bloody battle for the capital, not the capitulation of cities that occurred around this country last week. While officers are optimistic that the regime eventually will fall, they're also realistic about the practical challenges. Above all else, they said, they don't want to increase the bloodshed amid reports of wanton violence in the battle between the regime and the overwhelming number of citizens against it.

"We will never shoot at the people," said Col. Jamal Muhtar, a commander of the army's special forces. "We are the People's Army."

Soldiers who joined the People's Army, either as defectors or because they were recruited, are defensive about suggestions that they should march toward the capital. When a female reporter asked why his unit was not moving toward the capital, one special forces commander, who returned from retirement to support the rebellion, responded: "Lady, we just formed an army three days ago."

Where Tunis and Egypt had existing strong armies that embodied nationalism, Gadhafi kept his military of roughly 40,000 soldiers weak. Instead, he built personal brigades led by — and named for — his sons. Those brigades were the best trained and equipped forces of the nation and far more feared than the Libyan army.

Gadhafi, who rose to power at age 27 through a bloodless military coup, didn't want to face the same threat. In addition, Gadhafi brought in an untold number of mercenaries to wear the army uniform.

"The brigades are better trained and have better equipment, but we have more heart in this fight," said Gen. Abdel Nafa Mussa Hotti, the newly named commander of the special forces unit here. Before anti-Gadhafi forces won control here a week ago, Hotti was a division commander. "Now we are under the authority of the revolutionary youth. We will do what we are asked to do."

Many believe Gadhafi endorsed the sons' brigades to thwart an internal threat just as he is currently facing. The brigades were part of an elaborate internal security apparatus. On the government news channel, residents here have been told that disloyal members of the brigade have been executed.

For now, those headed toward the capital from Benghazi are almost exclusively rebels who took to the streets and are free of the constraints that come with serving a nation's military. Every day, an unknown number move toward Tripoli but are stopped at Sirt, Gadhafi's hometown and arguably his largest stronghold. Some have reportedly been executed. Sirt could be equally challenging to the fledging People's Army.

To be clear, rebels in the capital appear to have the backing of some army units that have decided not to wait for orders from an interim government. But how many and how prepared they are is unclear.

Among the challenges for soldiers seeking to fight for the capital is that there is no government to give them authority.

Days after residents won control of Benghazi, civilian leaders are hurriedly deciding what to do with their new freedoms. On Friday, local leaders formed a government for the city; on Sunday officials met for hours to create an interim national government until Gadhafi falls in Tripoli, where the new government would move.

Part of that interim government's responsibility will be to give orders to the army. Without a government to give it orders, the army must stay put.

"The people need order. We have a body that will give us order," said Dr. Abdullah Sumeia, who is advising the 13-member Benghazi governing council. "There will be a national council soon and they will be in charge of the army. We have to do it this way" to avoid chaos.

However, Sumeia didn't discourage rebels from risking their lives and moving toward the capital. This is a national movement and the youth have created momentum, he said.

"If I was not too old, I would go with them. But I am 63 years old," Sumeia said. "Somebody can stop the army. Nobody can stop the rebels."

There are reasons for the army's uncertain role. Throughout the streets of Benghazi, those who don a military uniform either are serving in the People's Army, are veterans of the former Libyan army, or looted the uniforms from one of the now destroyed military bases here.

Abdulhafid Gouqa, a lawyer from Benghazi who was appointed spokesman of the council that eventually will become the interim government, said looted weapons would be handed over to the army: "We fully believe in the Libyan People's Army. We are dependent on the Libyan army to free the rest of the cities."

The army also must sort out the role of the youth in its future forces. Col. Muhtar, who works alongside the commanding general, said the military must find some kind of role for the youth given their role in the country's liberation. Indeed, all days, young men line up at a tent outside the government headquarters and give their names to volunteer to fight for the capital. Steady streams of men show up all day long.

"We are ready to support the people," Muhtar said. "But we must be prepared."

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