A day of battle shows Libyan rebels' weaknesses

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 29, 2011 

BIN JAWWAD, Libya — The battle for control of this seemingly abandoned village was already hours old Tuesday when a busload of women suddenly emerged on the highway leading out of here and began cheering as though they supported the rebels. Just one woman aboard offered the fighters an ominous warning.

"They are coming. God be with you," she told the rebels who lined the highway.

Five minutes later, the attack began.

The women, as it turned out, weren't rebel sympathizers at all, but the wives and daughters of Bin Jawwad residents who support Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. As soon as their women were out of harm's way, the men began shooting at the rebels from their homes.

The hundreds of rebels along the road found themselves trapped between the pro-Gadhafi snipers and fellow rag-tag fighters further up the road who fired back with weapons they barely knew how to use.

As cars swerved to avoid the shower of bullets coming from all sides and the rebel lines collapsed, it became clear that Gadhafi had found another way to win back territory despite coalition airstrikes that have eliminated his air power and targeted his tanks and artillery.

By the end of the day, not only would Bin Jawwad be lost by the rebels, but the oil terminal town of Ras Lanouf would be threatened in a see-saw battle that could well characterize this war for weeks, if not months or years.

With both sides unable to overwhelm their opponents, thanks to 10 days of U.S.-led airstrikes, on the one hand, and rebel inexperience, on the other, Libya's fate is being decided along a 150-mile stretch of highway between Bin Jawwad and Ajdabiya, two points between the capital of the rebel-held east, Benghazi, and Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, the last major Gadhafi stronghold between here and Tripoli.

Along that stretch, Bin Jawwad has changed hands twice in 24 hours. Ras Lanouf, taken by the rebels just Saturday, was being evacuated and appeared about to fall to pro-Gadhafi forces late Tuesday.

The next town, Brega, has changed hands twice in the past 10 days. And Ajdabiya, the largest of the cities, was under Gadhafi control last week, only to fall to the rebels on Saturday.

What Wednesday will hold is difficult to predict.

The rebels are comprised of drivers, teachers, businessmen and other inexperienced fighters striving to shift from being protesters to infantry riflemen.

There is a small group of so-called Special Forces who appear to lead the rebels' efforts at building a military operation, but they're only slightly better equipped and trained than the great mass of anti-Gadhafi fighters.

The inexperience is evident: Many, if not most, rebels flee when actual fighting begins. Without allied airstrikes — there were none here on Tuesday — there is no moving forward.

Rebels acknowledge frustration.

"This is our war. We attack and retreat. Attack and retreat," a resigned Jamal Saleh, 31, of Benghazi, explained after fleeing.

"That is why we fought like this, just to go back? When are we going to advance?" said his fellow fighter, 34-year-old Zayed Ghiarani, a small business owner who became a fighter last month.

For their part, Gadhafi forces appear to have adjusted to the loss of their biggest asset, an air force.

Until the United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone was imposed on March 19, Gadhafi would deploy airstrikes against rebel positions, followed by a rush of ground forces.

But Gadhafi forces didn't need aircraft here. Instead, they showered the rebels with a barrage of artillery fire, followed by small arms fire, a ground offensive and strikes from houses inside the village. The rebels fled in response, and their rudimentary military operation collapsed.

"They are attacking us with missiles and tanks," said Khalid Mohammed, 37, of Benghazi, another retreating soldier. "We can't attack his tanks. We can't do it."

Before the Gadhafi counterattack began Tuesday, the rebels had vowed to march forward, no matter what. Hundreds lined the highway and cheered the prospects of moving forward. They appeared to have picked up some military tactics over their weeks of fighting. They had a rear flank on a ridge leading out of the city. And they moved their heavy weapons to the front, followed by small arms in the back.

"We will either get to Tripoli or die," said Nabil Mohammed, 30, an employee at a medicine company before the revolt last month.

But as the thumps of artillery landing came closer and closer, Mohammed and his fellow fighters began moving back along the two-lane highway, creating a convoy of close to 1,000 vehicles.

The closer the sounds, the more panicked they became. The flank on the ridge collapsed in minutes as the rebels drove back. Most it turned out had no intention of fighting when it mattered.

Still, as they retreated, they flashed V for victory and vowed Gadhafi's days were numbered. Most then stood around and waited.

The rebels' day wasn't over yet, however. They fired their best heavy artillery from the rear, seemingly sending Gadhafi's forces fleeing. The rebels then moved back into Bin Jawwad. Mohammed carried a Libyan flag and acted as a traffic cop for the celebratory rebels. Around him, others fluttered their flags, shouted "God is Great," cursed Gadhafi and hurriedly drove back to a front line.

But victory was fleeting. Minutes later, the buses filled with women appeared. Gadhafi forces moved in from both the desert and the sea side. Then the pro-Gadhafi residents opened fire from their homes.

The rebels were caught completely flatfooted, with the fighters and those simply cheering them on intermixed in a spree of gunfire. Those who celebrated began shooting aimlessly. Those who could fight tried to build their line again. Mostly, the rebels panicked.

Mohammed conceded that the rebels are ill prepared. He received three days of training before receiving his AK-47. He learned about flanks and tactics and how to use his weapon. He said he wants to defend the liberated east, but so far he hasn't been able to practice what he learned.

"There are too many rebels who have no training at all so we can't practice what we have learned," Mohammed said. "Plus when we use our heavy weapons, they have five or six kilometer range. Gadhafi's same weapons have a 50 to 60 kilometer range."

Mohammed said he believes better weapons are the answer.

By 4 p.m., the battle here was lost. Gadhafi's forces had retaken Bin Jawwad and had begun moving toward Ras Lanouf, which seemed destined to fall.

By evening, rebel forces there were evacuating the hospital and fleeing east again.

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