RAS LANOUF, Libya — Ibrahim Mohammed, 35, returned from fighting in the eastern Libyan city of Ben Jawad, convinced that he and his fellow ragtag forces had easily moved the rebels one city closer to the capital and to victory. Relieved, he jumped into his truck and drove 25 miles back from the frontline.
By the next day, a group of men posing as fellow fighters drew him into the biggest battle he had faced since the liberated east fell out of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's control last month. On Sunday, the men told Mohammed to join them and head back to Ben Jawad because Gadhafi's forces had left badly needed ammunition behind. Since few among the rebel fighters know each other, he assumed they were allies and jumped in, only to discover he was being driven into an ambush.
In Ben Jawad, Gadhafi's forces were reinforced and on Sunday residents were not as welcoming of the rebels as before and were, in some cases, fighting alongside Gadhafi's troops, several insurgents told McClatchy.
Armed with guns, grenades and shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, the rebels were no match for the regime's artillery, snipers, airstrikes and missile attacks.
Sunday's daylong battle left at least six rebels dead and 60 wounded and handed the rebel-controlled east its first decisive loss in the insurrection's steady move to control the country.
There were likely far more dead, rebels said. Gadhafi's forces would not allow them to retrieve all their dead or injured. In some cases, the regime's forces disposed of the bodies or killed the injured, they charged.
"The guys who told me about the ammunition didn't tell me about the fight. They set me up," Mohammed said from Ras Lanouf, the next nearest town safely in the rebel's control. "Gadhafi's forces have really, really grown. We have to wait for more support for the east and then we will try again."
Indeed, the rebels spent the day trying over and over again to get back into Ben Jawad. They would charge forward, seemingly blindly, vowing to die for country. Then they would be met with a barrage of artillery or an airstrike and would retreat a few meters back until it stopped only to try — and fail — again. By the end of the day, the fighters seemed as frustrated with the outcome as they were with their meager weapons.
"These guns are useless," said Saed Buchlega, 27, as he pointed to his Kalashnikov, an extra magazine of rounds duct-taped on to get to easier. Buchlega had used the same weapon in the fight earlier this week for control of his hometown, Ajdabiya, which sits on the same highway. "But the fight there was easier. The fight in Ajdabiya didn't last as long because they (Gadhafi') forces pulled back."
But the scenes of the day also captured how ill prepared the motley crew of rebels are for what are likely to be even fiercer battles ahead. Most of the fighters seeking to wrest control away from Gadhafi had never fired a weapon before the insurrection. And while they are somewhat better organized than before, with every city that they face, they are moving closer to Gadhafi's stronghold and hometown, Sirte, and eventually the capital Tripoli.
The fighting here was matched by battles elsewhere around the country Sunday, in a lengthening conflict that neither Gadhafi's depleted forces nor his opponents have the power to win outright, at least in the near-term.
In Misrata, Libya's third-largest city and east of Tripoli, pro-Gadhafi forces and mercenaries attacked around 11 a.m. local time, riding into town from the east and west in a convoy of about 40 jeeps, accompanied by six tanks and anti-aircraft weapons, according to Ahmed, a resident who asked that his last name be withheld for security reasons.
The pro-Gadhafi forces were forced to retreat after several hours, but only after a fierce battle in which government troops pounded city buildings and shot at civilians seemingly at random. Ahmed estimated that 17 civilians and perhaps 15 of Gadhafi's forces were killed.
While the city's residents celebrated their victory Sunday, "we're on red light (alert)," Ahmed said. "Because they may come back at any time, you know."
There were also reports of bloody fighting in Zawiya, the anti-Gadhafi forces' major stronghold in western Libya outside Tripoli, a city that the Libyan dictator has tried several times to retake in recent days.
Ben Jawad is the nearest village to Sirte; it has no more than 1,000 people. Some rebels said they believe some residents in Ben Jawad are from Sirte.
Every man had his own way to prepare for the battle. In Ras Lanouf, one rebel let off a grenade near his comrades to see if the box that he had acquired from looted military installations actually worked. Nearby, two men latched a high-caliber machine gun on the back of their pick up truck and took off Sunday afternoon back to the fight.
"Let's go. I want to die for my county," one man said to the other as they drove off.
At the hospital here, the closest one to the frontline, an endless steam of bloodied gurneys rushed by the front door, often with dried blood on them from the previous patient. Men wailed as they sought to find out if their brothers had died, screaming: "I just want to know if he is dead."
The hospital floors were covered with drips of blood. In between the rush of patients, workers would attempt to mop the floor. Then the patients would arrive in spurts — one shot in the face, another in the leg, still another was shot in the groin. Always, there was a fellow uninjured fighter accompanying him. At one point, the hospital staff pleaded that those with guns step outside.
"It's a dirty, dirty, war," said Dr. Heitham Gherani, 39, a doctor who has volunteered along the highway that links the east to the west. He had treated the wounded in Brega and Ajdabiya as well.
Two journalists, including an American, were injured during the fighting, both shot in the leg. The American declined to give his name, but said he was 33 years old. Colleagues said he was a freelancer.
Abdel Basset Saed, 29, came back with an injured comrade whom he did not know before the battle here began. He, along with Mohammed, had fought Saturday and was convinced they had prevailed.
"But we went back, they (Gadhafi's forces) started shooting everyone with every kind of weapon," Saed said.
Mohammed al Masalti, 40, yet another fighter said he thinks the rebels were too eager to move to Sirte and didn't make sure Ben Jawad was secure first. In the night, he believes, Gadhafi forces set up their positions.
Regardless of how they lost, the day's events left the rebels pleading for help.
"We are waiting for the no fly zone," Buchlega said at the end of the day's fighting. And then, in English, to better reach his American audience, he said: "Where is the United States?"
In Washington on Sunday, Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz, repeated his call for a no-fly zone that would stop the Libyan regime's military aircraft from being used in attacks on opposition forces.
Calling Gadhafi "insane." McCain said on ABC News' "This Week" program that "We can't risk allowing Gadhafi to massacre people from the air, both by helicopter and fixed-wing" aircraft.
But White House chief of staff Bill Daley, in a separate appearance on NBC"s "Meet the Press," indicated that President Barack Obama is nowhere near ordering U.S. military intervention.
"Lots of people throw around phrases of 'no-fly zone,' and they talk about it as though it's just a game on a video game or something," Daley said.
(Warren P. Strobel contributed from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY