Routed from key towns, Libyan rebels seek to organize

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2011 

BREGA, Libya — Libyan rebels with military training began on Friday turning away inexperienced volunteers from the front lines here in an effort to salvage their battle against Moammar Gadhafi's better trained forces.

The effort came as Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the leader of the rebel council, announced that the rebels would consider negotiating with Gadhafi if the Libyan leader withdraws his forces from eastern cities and allows peaceful protests. It was the most specific proposition for talks that the rebels have offered since the revolt began in February.

The decision to separate the untrained and ill-equipped volunteers from the rebels' "special forces" is the first concrete sign that the rebel leadership is taking steps to bring some kind of organization to the anti-Gadhafi military effort, which to date has looked more like a weekend road rally than a battlefield operation. At the first sign of gunfire, most of the rebel forces dash to their waiting vehicles and race away from the battlefield.

"It's a strategy. We have to do this," said a 32-year-old rebel who asked to be identified by only his first name, Jamal, as he waited at a checkpoint 20 miles behind the front line, where only fighters with heavy weapons were allowed to go forward. "The further you go (toward the front line), the more confusing it gets."

Whether all the rebel volunteers will comply with the efforts to bring greater discipline and experience to the rebel cause remains in doubt, however. Some voiced frustration that they're no longer welcome to participate in their country's revolution. Others threatened to form their own forces. And at one front line, fighting erupted between a handful of special forces charged with keeping the volunteers back and dozens of those volunteers who were eager to charge forward.

The volunteers eventually capitulated and stayed behind.

"We cannot tell them to go home. They are excited to be here and want to be a part of liberating their country," said Lt. Muftah Omar Hamza, 48, a special forces commander whose assignment 10 miles from the front line was to keep rebels back. "We are just telling them to stay behind until we need them."

The rebel military, comprised almost exclusively of onetime protesters without military experience who became fighters when they captured Gadhafi's weapons stores, has been unable to hold on to territory it once controlled — much less advance — against Gadhafi's much better equipped and trained forces.

The small group of trained military defectors known as special forces — the only organized military force in the east — had stayed largely out of sight until Friday, when it asserted its dominance by keeping inexperienced fighters back.

By Friday evening, only special forces were manning the front line outside the oil-rich town of Brega. Behind them, other less experienced rebels were deployed for miles east along the highway that connects the liberated east with Tripoli, with the most ill-prepared forces farthest back.

Those rebel volunteers would scurry to the front upon word that the special forces had advanced the front line. But as soon as Gadhafi loyalists showered the rebel forces with artillery, the volunteers fled, leaving just the special forces at the front.

It was difficult to know with any certainty whether the new effort to bring more experienced troops forward was reflected in battlefield success. Gadhafi loyalists remained in control of Brega, a key oil terminal, at the end of the day, and journalists were kept away from the fighting.

Rebels said the effort to keep inexperienced fighters from the front began earlier this week after rebels on Tuesday lost control of Bin Jawwad, a town 90 miles from Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, and the farthest point west that the rebels had ever held.

That defeat quickly turned into a rout all along the highway that runs along Libya's coast as rebel volunteers fled the towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega in the face of Gadhafi mortar and sniper attacks.

NATO aircraft, which previously had decimated Gadhafi loyalist tanks and artillery, took no part in the battles this week, grounded by bad weather and fearful of launching weapons into a battlefield where they were having difficulty telling the pro-Gadhafi forces, who also were traveling in light trucks, from the anti-Gadhafi forces.

On Friday, special forces rebels manned checkpoints between Benghazi, the capital of the liberated east, and Ajdabiya, the last city now under rebel control, in an effort to stop volunteers from heading to Brega.

Some were armed with a seven-point order signed by Col. Hamad al Hurma bil Khair of the National Liberation Army. Among the commands: Rebel volunteers must move only in platoon-sized units; no individual volunteers would be allowed to go forward; volunteers must treat civilians politely in any communities they manage to capture, and no one would be allowed forward unless they'd been given orders to move and the front line is "perfectly secure."

Rebels said that until this week's setbacks, some rebel volunteers with some experience had been allowed to fight near the special forces. That, apparently, is coming to an end.

Osama Mehdawi, 24, a Benghazi dentist, had received some rudimentary training in the last few weeks to use a missile launcher and was awaiting a call from the special forces to help maintain a defense line. Instead, this week the forces called and told him to return his missile launcher and uniform; he no longer would be needed.

He vowed to keep fighting.

"They want to organize better, but it is difficult. I have to do something," Mehdawi said. "We have weapons. The rebels will form their own forces."

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