BENGHAZI, Libya — Rebel fighters who once vowed to seize Tripoli from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi instead have retreated from their forward positions to defend their homes, saying their rebel council isn't leading them, they don't trust their military commanders and their army is divided.
Days of interviews throughout Libya's rebel-dominated eastern half provide a grim picture of the group whose side the U.S. and its coalition partners have taken in a fight whose goal, if unstated, is to drive Gadhafi from power after 42 years. The rebels hardly seem ready to take the lead.
Rather than strive to win the war and take back cities lost to Gadhafi over the past 10 days, rebel fighters say they simply want to defend their homes, figure out who's friend or foe, and regroup.
Hopes of a new constitutional, democratic Libya that drove the rebellion a month ago appear moribund, dashed by the ease with which Gadhafi forces entered this city a week ago. Residents here openly acknowledge that Gadhafi loyalists would have taken the city had French aircraft not bombed loyalist tanks.
This poses a major challenge to the U.S. and its Western allies, which have mounted airstrikes to cripple Gadhafi's air force but are reluctant to send in ground troops in support of the rebels. NATO agreed Thursday night to take control over enforcement of the no fly zone from the U.S., which had been acting as the lead player, but even with the handover, a U.S. general is likely to remain in command, American officials said.
The realization that they could have been so quickly overwhelmed has forced the rebels to confront the weaknesses of the council that claims to be their government and of the rebel fighting force itself. Perhaps most unnerving was the discovery that hundreds, if not thousands, of Gadhafi sympathizers were among them.
During the loyalist attack, rebels here say, men in civilian clothes came out of their Benghazi homes and attacked the city along with Gadhafi forces charging in from the south. Rebels said they suspect other infiltrators have spied on them from the frontline.
"We don't have an army," said Lt. Saleh Ibrahim, a former restaurateur who is now supposed to be a rebel commander. "We have been betrayed by infiltrators on the frontline. And when Benghazi came under attack, our government fled to Egypt. We are not safe here. For me, at least I will defend my family."
In Egypt and Tunisia, where popular protests forced the resignation of longtime leaders, the military that assumed power had been a key part of the governing structure, That's not true in Libya, where everything has hinged on Gadhafi for decades.
Opponents inside the country were arrested or worse, and those who fled the country have never coalesced into a firm opposition group.
The result is apparent in the east, where anti-Gadhafi forces lack organization and structure.
Elder statesmen are now in charge of a movement that was initially driven by angry youth, and they're still figuring out how to govern. They face not only international uncertainty about who they are, but domestic pressures as well.
On the front lines in the city of Ajdabiya, the last major city before Benghazi, the few remaining rebels are poorly armed, some with no more than knives, and without any leader. Most rebels that were there have returned to Benghazi to set up neighborhood watch groups, using the last of their remaining weapons.
At the 7th of April Army base here, a major rebel army headquarters, Ibrahim, 57, says any appearance of organization is illusory. He said he's too embarrassed to invite reporters inside because, he said, he doesn't want the world to see "all the rubbish we have."
A tank leaving the base isn't on its way to war, he said, but to pull a civilian car from a ravine. A rusted tank returning will be pillaged for parts.
"All the tanks here are for show only. We don't have ammunition. We don't have weapons. We don't have anything," he said, the exasperation evidence in his voice.
He openly distrusts the man who had, until Thursday, been charged with running the rebel army, Abdel Fatah Younes, Gadhafi's former interior minister, who defected last month. Until then, he'd spent nearly five decades at Gadhafi's side, including playing a key role in the 1969 revolution against King Idris, which brought the then 27-year-old Gadhafi to power.
Ibrahim said the rebels should have prosecuted Younes for his crimes during the regime, not chosen him as their leader. He's not the only person Ibrahim doesn't trust.
"Let's be frank," Ibrahim said, pointing to a soldier standing next to him. "This guy standing beside me could be a traitor. I don't know. I don't know him."
On Thursday, Younes was replaced and a new commander, Khalifa Huftur, was appointed, the third rebel army leader in less than a month. Younes, however, will stay on as Huftur's chief of staff, according to Air Force Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, the rebels' new military spokesman.
At a news conference, Bani conceded that there's no army to defend Benghazi, much less march on Tripoli. He said the army would need "weeks" of training, though he also said he didn't know who'd provide the training or the weapons.
The greatest resource for tracking the enemy, he added later, is Google Earth.
A drive through Benghazi's port turns up no forces guarding it, and checkpoints on the main highways into the city are rare.
The newly created rebel governing council pleads for more time. They said they're former orthodontists, businessmen and professors, not politicians. But for those returning from the frontline, that only sounds like excuses.
A council spokesman, Mustafa Geriani, says it's unfair to expect more. "We are not talking about a country here. We are only five weeks old."
Added Eman Bugaighis, another rebel council spokesperson: "I think Afghanistan has institutions better than ours. We don't have anything."
Among those who've left the frontlines to defend his home is 19-year-old Ayub al Mehdu, who was part of the initial rebel push into Ajdabiya, Brega, Ras Lanouf and Bin Jawad, all communities since lost to Gadhafi forces. His job was to pick up the dead bodies, almost always stripped for weapons, he said. Along the way, he lost his best friend, also a rebel fighter.
The mild-mannered young man with the tiny frame returned to Benghazi three days ago, He says he's planning to buy smuggled weapons near the Egyptian border. In the meantime, he and his friends stand outside the neighborhood and stop cars, particularly those from Tripoli, and search them for possible infiltrators.
His reasons for leaving are pretty simple, he said. There's an internal strife between Special Forces, many of whom are former military officers, and the rebels, a majority of whom had never fired a weapon until last month.
The Special Forces feel the rebels are slowing them down; the rebels don't trust the Special Forces and want to defend the movement they started. Both groups are ill equipped to confront Gadhafi's better armed forces.
The rebel council hasn't done much for him, other than provide food to fighters, he said.
"It's useless," he explained.
His friend and fellow fighter, Mohammed Saleh Ojadee, 23, a mechanic shop owner turned rebel fighter, offers a more ominous prediction. He said he fears that the power vacuum, and the constant feeling of mistrust here, could spark a civil war, based on vengeance for acts of betrayal that happen during this uncertain period.
"The continuous unrest that is happening in Benghazi has never happened before. We are not used to it. I am afraid people will lose hope living under that pressure and turn on another," Ojadee said. "We need a leader."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011