Revolutionary unity tested as Libya's ex-rebels face setbacks

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 20, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — A month after jubilant revolutionary fighters seized control of Tripoli, the movement is grappling with military and political setbacks in the struggle to wrest all of Libya from Moammar Gadhafi's loyalists.

The former rebels on Tuesday plowed deeper into Sabha, a southern Gadhafi loyalist city whose capture is important to cutting off an escape route to neighboring Niger. But the fight for two other towns farther north — Bani Walid and Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte — has stalled because of fierce resistance, discord within the fighters' ranks and inefficient supply lines, members of the revolutionary forces said.

The National Transitional Council, now the ruling authority, has failed to agree on a new interim Cabinet after talks in the eastern city of Benghazi broke down this week over worsening regional, tribal and ideological divisions, according to politicians involved in the negotiations.

Gadhafi and members of his inner circle, including his son and onetime heir apparent, Saif al Islam, remain at large weeks after the former rebels ransacked the family's fortresslike compound in Tripoli. Gadhafi's arrest or death, revolutionary forces say, would boost morale and, they hope, convince the last holdouts to surrender.

Speaking from a hiding place, Gadhafi rallied his forces in an audio recording that aired Tuesday on a Syrian-based TV channel that's become his main mouthpiece. Taking aim at the former rebels' reliance on NATO backing, Gadhafi dismissed the movement as "a charade that's gaining its legitimacy through airstrikes that will not last forever."

Gaining control of Sabha, Bani Walid and Sirte would cement the revolutionaries' control of Libya and pave the way for full recognition of the transitional council as Libya's caretaker authority. Though already supported by many foreign powers, the council in the meantime will remain what one Western diplomat deemed "an interim interim government."

The council's chairman, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, met privately Tuesday with President Barack Obama in New York and addressed the United Nations, pledging to work toward national reconciliation and democracy.

"Libya reassures everyone that it will be a vibrant state that upholds peace and security in the region," he said through an interpreter.

Even as U.N. representatives greeted Abdul-Jalil with warm applause, however, news reports from the front lines suggest discontent among the former rebels' rank-and-file fighters, who are exhausted from a weeks-long cycle of advance and retreat outside the last loyalist enclaves.

Many of the brigades are essentially militias that answer to individual leaders rather than a central command, a problem that's sure to plague the National Transitional Council when it comes time to disband the groups and build a national army.

"There's tough resistance. They still have rockets and many other heavy weapons," said Saleh Abdelsalam Swery, 39, who was flown to a Benghazi hospital from the Sirte front Tuesday after shrapnel pierced his stomach. "Nobody can tell you the truth about Sirte."

The former rebels have replenished their arsenals with weapons and ammunition seized from Tripoli and other places where Gadhafi's forces were overwhelmed. But the supply chain remains a problem for the fighters, especially as they push farther from the National Transitional Council's base in Benghazi, some revolutionary factions said.

The fighters aren't paid, and most of their food and water comes from civilian volunteers, such as women's associations and restaurateurs, who send meals to the battlefield as often as possible

A consultant to the Benghazi-based Union of Revolutionary Forces — the eastern command and part of the interim defense ministry — said some field commanders were furious with the council for diverting supplies and equipment intended for the front line.

The consultant, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity, said a British shipment of long-range radios was distributed to the local police force instead of being delivered to the front line. He said there were only 25 pairs of night-vision goggles for a large swath of the battle theater. The lack of GPS capabilities, he said, left one rebel commander lost in the desert for a week.

A fleet of about 30 four-wheel-drive desert vehicles that arrived from Qatar languished in Benghazi when rebels needed them desperately on the front.

"We kept calling them and calling them to take them, and the executive office said, 'We will, we will,' but this went on for weeks," the consultant said.

Col. Ahmed Bani, military spokesman for the revolutionary forces, referred the allegations to the interim defense minister but said he had no evidence that the lack of supplies was impeding the advance.

"They should ask the NTC for an investigation," Bani said by telephone from Tripoli. "As I have heard, there's even ice cream on the front lines."

Doctors at Benghazi's Hawari Hospital, where casualties from the front lines arrive daily by helicopter, said they were using kitchen gloves to keep their hands sterile because of the lack of surgical gloves. Rust-colored water flows from taps, and the air conditioning is so unreliable that they sometimes open windows for ventilation, allowing flies into the operating room.

Dr. Osama Jazwi, an anesthesiologist, described conditions as better than they were a few months ago, but still "not very good." Allegations of corruption and mismanagement of donations prompted an internal revolt last week in which the hospital staff kicked out administration officials and padlocked their offices.

"There's poor distribution and management of the supplies because of the NTC and the ministry of health," Jazwi said.

Many other sectors echoed complaints about the council's inefficiency, and activists who accepted the first wartime council because of the fluid circumstances say that now that Libya is more stable, it's time to pick leaders based on their qualifications, not connections.

Officials involved in the government formation talks say that a list of 35 or more names is under discussion but internal divisions are derailing the process. One of the most contentious issues is whether Mahmoud Jibril, a political scientist who spent many years in Pittsburgh, should remain as the de facto prime minister.

Islamist and other factions complain that he's too close to members of the former regime and accuse him of stacking the government with friends and relatives. They also point out that he spent most of the uprising safe in Qatar.

Ali al Sallabi, an influential Islamist scholar whom Gadhafi jailed in the 1980s, said support for Jibril had weakened and that he was "not qualified to lead Libya as a strong prime minister."

Sallabi, the scion of a prominent religious family and a cleric sometimes described as the spiritual guide of the revolution, said by telephone from Qatar that Jibril's appointments to oil, media and health posts had no relevant experience. Most of the executive office, he said, were opportunists.

"This mentality is Gadhafi's mentality, and it's now expired," he said. "There must be pluralism and different opinions reflecting the spectrum of Libyans."

Jibril's supporters counter that he worked hard to unfreeze Libyan assets in foreign banks and has good connections with Western powers at a time when Libya needs international help.

Wafaa Bugaighis, a chemical engineer who runs a women's political association in Benghazi, said many Libyans were disappointed with the candidates' names that had emerged and would demand transparency from the council on the criteria used for their selection.

She also questioned why the bulk of transitional work is still handled by volunteers and charity groups when money should be available now to correct some of the scarcities that Libyans accepted during the revolt.

"We don't know whether they have unfrozen some assets or not. The picture is not clear," Bugaighis said. "We don't have resources in many of the ministries, and this is something we need to question the government about. This is an important time for Libya, and we need to get moving."

(Lesley Clark contributed to this article from the United Nations.)

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