The Battle for Libya

Muammar Qaddafi
Muammar Qaddafi; drawing by John Springs

Tucked between the Mediterranean and the Sahara, the Libyan town of Brega was a rather somnolent back-of-the-beyond place on the Gulf of Sidra in the north of the country. Oil workers went there for its high wages and decent schools—an engineer at the Sirte Oil Company earned ten times more than his counterpart in the armed forces.

No longer. Brega, which sits on an oil lake, has become a battlefield in the fight against the government of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Bombs drop among oil depots filled with hundreds of thousands of barrels, and in the past two weeks, the company managers have had to deal with four changes of regime. To hedge bets they keep in touch with both the rebels in Benghazi, to the east, and the Qaddafi regime in Tripoli, to the west.

The battle for Brega and a nearby but larger terminal, Ras Lanuf, has significantly upped the stakes in Libya’s conflict. It is being fought halfway between Colonel Qaddafi’s tribal heartland of Sirte and the rebel base in Benghazi, a city of 800,000, and has drawn traditional desert tribes into the revolution, including the large Maghraba and Zawiya clans, on whose coastal scrubland Brega lies. It also threatens to draw in an outside world jittery that southern Europe’s nearest oil supplies are now jeopardized.

On March 10, Qaddafi launched a blistering counterattack on Ras Lanuf, dropping bombs among the vast oil kettles and darkening the sky with burning kerosene. The volunteers shot back with their small antiaircraft guns at the invisible whoosh of fighter jets, but many were forced to retreat. The colonel’s aerial and tank bombardment was slowing, if not stopping, the advance. As the fighting intensifies, those of the rebel forces that, until now, stayed on the sidelines are rapidly being drawn into the conflict. Away from the front many are unsettled with fear. What if the weapons turn out to be chemical weapons, asks a Benghazi shopkeeper. Was it worth it?

Thanks to his brutality, Colonel Qaddafi has successfully suppressed pro-democracy protests against his dictatorship in a war in which, while the rebels have higher morale, he has the most money and arms. By killing perhaps as many as ten times more people than Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a population less than a tenth the size of Egypt’s, he has slowed the rebellion, an achievement neither Tunisia’s nor Egypt’s erstwhile leaders could do. He is playing the nationalist card more plausibly than at any time since US planes bombed his family compound at Bab al-Aziziya in 1986. And he has sapped the opposition of some of its moral advantage. As more people die in the fighting, the price of life on both sides cheapens. Qaddafi’s forces have killed at least a thousand. And rebels have killed black African alleged mercenaries who were prisoners of war.

“Under interrogation they told us they had received $100,000 to…

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