Libya's rebels try to organize better, but it's not easy

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 12, 2011 

AJDABIYA, Libya — As the conflict for control of Libya appears to be turning into a protracted war, the motley rebel forces that once charged forward easily to take parts of the east said Saturday that they now must organize themselves better militarily.

Here at the large green arches that mark this city's boundaries, where hundreds of rebel fighters once gathered jubilantly to march of to war, some not even carrying weapons, few remain. It's become too dangerous, the remaining rebels say. A few tanks remain, and only a few fighters patrol this entryway to the city.

Rebels said they now have commanders operating out of the newly named military operations center in Benghazi, the capital in the liberated east. Those commanders of the east's rebel Army join them at the front as well, fighters said, often wearing the rank of colonel on procured uniforms they didn't own a few days ago.

The rebels now even have food and water supply lines running from liberated towns to the ones up for control, sometimes with food prepared by wives left behind at home, so they now can stay and fight for days at a time.

The fighters also have developed their own rotation schedule so they can go home and rest. Many fighters have fought in every town won, moving along the barren highway that connects the cities. Indeed, they are starting to recognize each other and their doctors who travel with them between battlefields.

"Yes we have an operation room in Benghazi and we are getting orders from them," said Faraj al Musslatee, 50, as he was returning from the frontlines in Ras Lanuf, where rebels are struggling to retain control. "But we are using the same guns as before."

They are facing better-armed forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, which are using air power that fighters said they cannot defend against. In addition to airstrikes, pro-government forces are launching missile strikes on ships docked nearby, and they have set oil refineries afire.

Pro-Gadhafi forces are found throughout eastern Libya, including Benghazi. On Saturday, a cameraman for the Arab world's TV station Al-Jazeera was slain Saturday in what the station called an "ambush," becoming the first journalist killed in the month-long war.

That was the latest in a string of attacks attributed to pro-regime forces, including the sabotage of a huge ammunition dump, a hand grenade attack on a hotel where many journalists were staying and the public kidnapping of a Jordanian doctor from that same hotel. Together the incidents underscore that the effort to organize the rebel military better may not be sufficient.

Fighters discovered only one gas station of three along the highway working Saturday because of fighting in Ras Lanuf, home to Libya's largest refinery. In the past few days, large plumes of smoke have risen over the city. The fighting has moved from the outskirts to the hospital and mosque in the city's heart. The rebels maintain fragile control at best. A week ago, they had moved on to Ben Jawwad, the next city west along the highway.

Whether more organized rebel forces will see more gains remains unclear, though it appears to remain a largely unsophisticated military operation. The commands issuing from the unidentified leaders at the operation center so far have been orders like "move forward, retreat and spread out," said Khalifa al Atrus, 40. He was on shift to defend Ajdabiya, the last undeniably liberated city on this highway to Tripoli.

The commanders communicate to the fighters via cell phone. There's no time for training; fighters are jumping from battle to battle.

"They told us we need more missile launchers up front" Saturday, al Atrus said.

The pool of available military leaders here is shallow. Gadhafi maintained a professional army of only 40,000, and saved his best fighters and weapons for his personal forces, created to defend him against an uprising. In the east he kept the worst of his arsenal.

In addition, the rebels have lost momentum since the initial days of fighting. After rebels claimed to control it, Gadhafi forces retook the town of Ben Jawwad, the last city on the highway before Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and stronghold. His forces also claim that they now control the western city of Zawiya as well as the largest oil refinery near Tripoli after three weeks of battle.

Some rebels are no longer optimistic that the United States will impose a no-fly zone to stop the airstrikes against them and to stop Gadhafi's mercenaries from flying in; rather they hope that the United States and France will send weapons.

The Arab League called Saturday for the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians from Gadhafi's forces. The Obama administration wanted such approval from the 22-nation Arab League to insulate any Western action from perceptions in the Arab world that it was a colonial-like invasion. Still, any U.N. decision remains days away at best.

"We are surprised about the Americans' lacking help. They were keen to call for the end of Gadhafi and they then did nothing about it. We suspect they [American officials] are taking bribes," said Salem Mohammed, 46, a history teacher until the revolution began last month. "We are seeking our freedom. If that is what the States is about, they should help us."

Fighters said the military commanders represent the little-known National Libyan Council, which named itself the government of the liberated east. But Council members refused to talk about the military effort Saturday.

Rebels who once posed for journalists' photos now ban photos so that Gadhafi's forces won't learn their tactics. But many of their tactics remain. Fighters stop at checkpoints and tell each other what's happening at the front. Despite the operation center, decisions still ultimately rest with the fighters on the ground.

One fighter reported that two huge plumes of smoke were rising Saturday afternoon above Agelia, just outside Brega, the next town forward.

The fighters here immediately jumped up to prepare for a possible air strike against them.

"You have got to get out of here," the fighter told reporters. "We have to get ready."

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