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Bogged Down in Libya

If Qaddafi’s forces had reached Benghazi, there would not have been a slaughter amounting to genocide; but almost certainly there would have been a bloodbath. The back-and-forth of Katusha rockets that the two sides played to relatively harmless effect in the desert would have been murderous in the built-up areas of Benghazi, as would the colonel’s aerial and tank bombardments. At the eleventh hour, the Security Council declared a no-fly zone on March 17 and French air strikes destroyed Qaddafi’s tank convoy as it ground its way into Benghazi. But by that time, doctors had already recorded ninety-six deaths in the city.

Mike King


Over the past fortnight in Libya, I heard only one man dissent from the movement against Qaddafi, a Libyan Salafi in a pristine white tunic who follows the teachings of a Saudi religious group that preaches against defying leaders. The Western effort, he said, had escalated from a humanitarian to a military mission; it was killing, not saving, civilians, and he questioned why Western powers had not shown the same concern when Israel pummeled Gaza in the winter of 2008–2009. “We don’t want Mr. Cameron’s, Mr. Obama’s, and Mr. Sarkozy’s bombs,” he said. “Iraq was a much more modernized country than Libya, and look what a mess the allies left that.”

For the overwhelming majority, the more terrifying comparison with Iraq is to 1991, when following their liberation of Kuwait, Western powers backed Shia uprisings in southern Iraq, only to wash their hands when Saddam Hussein counterattacked. Thousands were killed and an estimated two million exiled as the Iraqi dictator reasserted control. A combination of US fear of a fundamentalist takeover (in this case by Iran) and a fear of mission creep that might upset a fragile coalition with Arab regimes underpinned American reluctance to intervene.

Could the same thing happen again? For now, the red line that the coalition has drawn in the sand has turned the east into a Qaddafi-free haven. His revolutionary committee bullies no longer interrupt diners in restaurants by beating the waiter for failing to dust the Great Leader’s obligatory portrait. And Qaddafi’s fellow despots confronting other popular uprisings think twice before applying such methods as using antiaircraft guns on civilian protesters.

But when the colonel pushes closer to Benghazi, the rebels start panicking over how far they can rely on their unlikely Western patrons. The US has dumped a leader whom for the last decade it has treated as an ally in the “war on terror,” and made common cause with an alliance that includes Western-oriented businessmen, but also former Guantánamo Bay inmates. After September 11, the colonel helped the United States track down Arab jihadis in Afghanistan, sharing intelligence extracted from torture victims. The United States responded by placing the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group on its terrorist blacklist.

Benghazi is now aswamp with Western delegations anxious to prop up the new rebel authority. The United States closed its mission in Qaddafi’s capital, Tripoli, and dispatched Chris Stevens, its number two official there, to Benghazi aboard a Greek boat loaded with armored cars. France, Qatar, and Italy have all recognized the rebels’ National Transitional Council as Libya’s legal authority. The UN, which on the weekend of April 2 flew a special envoy to meet the rebels, seems to do so in private on the grounds that no Libyan will remain safe as long as the colonel remains in power. “We’re pushing the responsibility to protect civilians to extremes,” a UN official told me. “When before did the UN support regime change of a member state?”

Judging by the US decision to withdraw from NATO’s regular policing of the no-fly zone, however, some American leaders remain undecided. The suspension of US Tomahawk missile attacks has been variously blamed on logistics, bad weather, and a fear of fatal mistakes. (In Kosovo, says a UN official, NATO bombings killed more civilians than Slobodan Milošević’s forces.) The rebels are trying to behave as politely as possible to the coalition. When a NATO plane struck a rebel convoy outside Ajdabiya on Saturday, April 2, killing thirteen people, the rebels apologized for the audacity of opening fire on a bomber. Opposition to external intervention has also waned as the predicament of the rebels grows more desperate. The Libyan resisters who once opposed proposals to send in Western forces now say openly that intelligence agents would be welcome. “They should come to verify there’s no al-Qaeda,” says a diminutive cross-eyed man with a wispy beard.

But weighed against such appeals is the counsel from fragile neighboring governments anxious to allay the Arab spring cleaning of autocratic rule. Algeria’s generals, National Council officials told me, provide Qaddafi’s western realm with gasoline, mercenaries from Polisario, the Algerian-backed movement to liberate Western Sahara, and above all propaganda about the risks of an al-Qaeda surge if the colonel is swept from power. Egypt, with its still-entrenched military leadership dealing with a fresh impetus of people power, appears as nervous of an incipient Islamist regime on its western border as it does of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, on its eastern one in Gaza. Had Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak still held power, it is likely that he would have shut its Libyan border and put the rebels under siege, just as he did when Hamas took power in Gaza.

And while the rebels have had much Arab support, the Great Leader continues to win backing further south. Central Libya’s tribes, including the Oulad Suleiman and the Warfalla, which hitherto stood on the sidelines, have now actively intervened to prevent the rebels from pushing west. The migrants from Chad and Mali on whom Qaddafi long ago bestowed passports are also repaying his favor with their loyalty.

With both sides increasingly dependent on foreigners to fight their battles, the war is incrementally burgeoning from an intra-Libyan struggle to a war of north versus south. The towns on the Libyan coast that seek allies against Qaddafi from across the Mediterranean are increasingly at war with a hinterland seeking to tighten its ties in Africa across the Sahara.


For a time after the UN Security Council issued Resolution 1973, fears of Qaddafi’s return to the east receded. As in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, the no-fly zone appeared to have turned Cyrenaica into a de facto protectorate, crystallizing Libya’s partition. Rebels protested against NATO’s procrastination in coming to the defense of their last remaining redoubts in the west—Misrata and mountain towns along the Tunisian border. A creaky fishing boat, the Shahhat, made the two-day voyage from Benghazi to Misrata loaded with tin boxes of ammunition and shells under a blanket of medicines, but that seemed hardly sufficient to salvage the city, and anyway a Turkish vessel acting under NATO’s auspices blocked its path. But for the most part Qaddafi did not recapture the east.

The front line seemed more stable too. After failing to move west, the thawar, Libya’s undisciplined and untrained rebels, ceded control to General Abdel Fatah Younis, Qaddafi’s Special Forces commander for the past four decades, and his thousand or so men. Initially they seemed to have shored up the east’s defenses. The more intrepid—equipped with a few radios, GPS trackers, and the occasional Grad, were fanning off-road, avoiding the repeated ambushes that chased off the thawar. Though they were not gaining territory, they were not losing much either. The daily 125-mile swings of the pendulum from one end of the Gulf of Sidra to the next were stabilized in early April to a movement of a few miles in a week around Brega’s battered oil terminal.

Without more robust NATO intervention, even that limited progress now looks in jeopardy. In recent days, starting around April 7, the colonel has regained the initiative, opting for small mobile infantry strikes on rebel defenses with increasing efficacy. Multiple raids on the eastern oil fields have at least temporarily put them out of production, depriving the rebels of potential revenue just as they had found ways of selling oil. And after retreating from positions around Brega, the thawar are once again fighting in the streets of Ajdabiya, the gateway to the rebel-held east. Most of its people have fled east, with accounts of a new reign of terror. Humiliated husbands speak of wives who were raped; mothers lament sons who have disappeared.

A mere two hours’ drive from the front line, Benghazi still struggles to retain an air of normality. Its electricity, water, and petrol pumps are all functioning. The police are back in their barracks, and some have even surfaced on the streets. A few balconies tentatively sport the new Libya’s flag. Restaurants and cafés stay open later into the night. A leisure park and lake are closed, but the courthouse’s forecourt has become a playground for young families at dusk. Fathers precariously perch toddlers on the turret of a disabled tank, mold their little hands into V-signs, and take pictures.

But in recent days rebel losses on the battlefield have had internal echoes as well. While the colonel advances, the rebel generals squabble over who is in command; and while the oil fields burn, the National Council and its minions bicker over who should run the industry.

The infighting is reflected on Benghazi’s streets. After weeks of remarkable resilience and self-control, the volunteer spirit is showing signs of strain. Drivers who had queued at intersections are succumbing to the temptation to jump the lights. Members of the Youth Committee surface at dawn to sweep the courthouse square, but in the side streets rubbish is piling up. Vigilantes tussle over who should protect which marketplaces. Many food joints remain closed not because of instability but because the foreigners who used to fry burgers have fled. The council’s few directives—such as a call for Libyans to fill posts vacated by foreigners—are largely observed in the breach.

No one has been able to reopen the schools. The Doha-based satellite channel that initially mobilized people now has an almost numbing effect. Young men spend their days transfixed by rolling news from the oscillating front, as if watching alone might bring victory. A few go joy-riding. Doctors manning a mobile field hospital at the front fume that Benghazi’s youth party in the courthouse square, while rebel towns in the west burn. “We should be rationing, not rejoicing,” says Zahi Moghrebi, a member of the National Council’s political advisory committee charged with planning a road map for Libya’s post-Qaddafi transition to a utopian-sounding constitutional democracy. “We’re celebrating before the battle is won.”

The more wary warn that the listless lawlessness could soon spark anarchy. Abdul Hakin al-Hasadi, the veteran of the Afghan jihad who now runs his own training camp in Darna, fears that without a robust National Council to fill the vacuum, the surfeit of unlicensed weapons could trigger another Somalia, and has made his recruits swear affidavits to hand in their weapons as soon as the colonel falls. Parents pray for schools to reopen before their children are swept in the rush to the front. On April 5, gun-toting schoolchildren congregating on the dock chased away a Turkish aid ship with ambulances after claims that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan supported Qaddafi.

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