A Libyan armageddon

Rebels are glad for their gains, but feel frustrated over what they see as tepid Western military backing for their goal of toppling Gaddafi.

Libyan rebels 520 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Libyan rebels 520
(photo credit: REUTERS)
CROUCHED UP AGAINST A mound of sand, Mohammad al- Jarani slowly peeks through his infrared night-vision binoculars in Dafniyya in western Libya.
Overhead, the sounds of NATO air patrols hum through the starry night. “You see there,” the 32-year-old Jarani points at the trees across a field, “that is where they are hiding,” he says, referring to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s troops.
As the skirmishes between Gaddafi’s forces and the rebels focused on his overthrow have petered out on the eastern front, fighting in Misurata and the western mountains has heated up. The two new theaters have intensified the pressure on the Libyan strongman as the rebels slowly inch toward the capitol of Tripoli.
But lacking an intensive bombing campaign by the Western-led NATO military alliance, the rebels have been largely left to fend for themselves in their mission. The rebels’ cause suffered an additional blow when the US House of Representatives voted June 24 to reject a resolution, sought by President Barack Obama, that would have authorized operations in Libya for a year. The move evinced anger among President Obama’s critics that he didn’t sufficiently consult Congress prior to launching the campaign – and a general US skittishness about getting involved in a third war on Muslim soil.
In May, the rebels began pushing out of the coastal town of Misurata, 210 kilometers east of Tripoli. Gaddafi’s forces besieged the city for 11 weeks, bombarding civilian homes with tank shells, GRAD surface-to-surface rockets and cluster bombs, until the rebels expelled government forces on May 11. The city became Libya’s Stalingrad, with no electricity and water and only the barest minimum of food. Snipers occupied buildings in the city’s main thoroughfare of Tripoli Street, forcing thousands of civilians in neighboring apartment complexes to flee. But despite overwhelming odds, the residents themselves ousted Gaddafi’s forces in coordinated attacks, first using stones and light weapons, and later using arms stolen from the army’s arsenals. The fighting left hundreds of civilians dead and a thousand more wounded.
Today the city’s downtown quarter looks like an urban Armageddon. The buildings on Tripoli Street are little more than cement and rubble. Electrical wires from collapsed ceilings blow in the wind and charred tank remains litter the streets. And although Misurata has been cleared of Gaddafi’s fighters, it is still under siege.
Surrounded on three sides by his forces, the city’s only lifeline is the port, through which Western aid organizations brave shelling by Gaddafi’s forces to ship in food, medical supplies and even ambulances.
Though Gaddafi’s troops are no longer in Misurata, they still bombard the city daily with long range GRAD rockets from positions in 34 fields outside Dafniyya, 25 kilometers from the town. The rebels have taken up positions amid the farms there, under the shelter of dry brush trees and sand embankments. They lay out mattresses and blankets on dirt roads under the cover of foliage next to pick-up trucks laden with 106 mm anti-tank cannons and 14.5 mm guns.
DURING A LULL IN THE FIGHTing, 25-year-old Mustapha Bishara brews tea over a rock-filled pit. The flames scorch the bottom of the gold-colored kettle, leaving a black veneer as the water begins to boil. “We are determined to bring down Muammar,” Bishara says confidently.
“We did not give up when his army attacked us with tanks in Misurata, and we won’t give up now when he is shooting his GRADS at us.” The last major fighting took place between June 7-10, following a NATO bombing campaign in which the coalition first introduced Apache helicopters in the Misurata region. Gaddafi’s fighters responded by launching a three-pronged offensive to retake the city. Using their superior weapons, they unleashed long-range, surface-to-surface rockets backed by tank fire. The underequipped rebels, who lack Gaddafi’s longrange missiles, suffered a crushing setback that left more than 70 dead.
The fighting has eased since then, with the rebels only occasionally firing their longrange rockets and making sporadic advances beyond their lines. Gaddafi’s forces, though, have not relented, still daily barraging the outskirts of Misurata and rebel positions.
There is little chance that the shelling will cease, as long as Gaddafi remains so determined to halt the rebels’ advance. With Tripoli only 210 kilometers away, any progress they make could threaten his regime and force him to redeploy his crack forces to contain the threat.
There are already rumors that Gaddafi has dispatched units from his son Khamis’ 32nd brigade to fortify positions in Zlitan, 50 kilometers west of Misurata. Its soldiers are considered the best trained in Libya, and they are equipped with the country’s most superior weapons. But the rebels in Misurata say they won’t flinch in the face of Gaddafi’s war machine. Their forces are deployed across three fronts – Dafniyya in the west, Abd al- Ra’uf in the south, and Karareem in the east – stretching Gaddafi’s troops thin.
Nevertheless, the early June campaign left the rebels demoralized. Many deflect the blame to NATO, because they mistakenly believed that the military alliance would intensify its bombing campaign to provide cover for rebel advances. Instead, they were shocked when NATO pulled back its helicopters after their brief introduction in early June.
Despite their dissatisfaction with NATO, lack of food, and constant shelling, Misurata’s residents are thrilled over their victory. They are ecstatic that they have liberated their city and unshackled themselves from Gaddafi and his erratic policies. “I don’t care if he fires his missiles at us all night and we eat canned tuna every day. As long as we don’t have to obey his goons, everything is fine,” says 34-yearold Mohammed Sharqasi, as a group of youths draw a Gaddafi caricature on the wall of a building behind him. While they are decorating the apartment complex, their comrades are busy cleaning city streets downtown, removing shell fragments and gathering up expended rifle cartridges.
Residents have set up an open-air war museum on Tripoli Street, filled with cluster bombs, Milan anti-tank casings, and 14.5 mm bullets. The municipality has set up a park with swing sets for children in a large concrete lot and sponsors events such as rousing games of musical chairs. Tanks that once targeted the city’s residents are now playground climbing structures for children’s hide-andseek.
Though Misurata is under siege and every street has buildings with shattered windows and walls scarred by bullets, its residents are trying to resume their lives.
YET DESPITE THEIR BEST attempts, residents still bear the wounds of the eleven-week battle.
“Parents bring in their children who complain of nightmares and steel monsters eating them up,” says Dr. Anas Shackfor, a psychiatrist who treats youth. “Teenagers are hobbling around on crutches with pins in their legs and shrapnel in their feet from the artillery.” The doctor pauses to approve a medical prescription an assistant brings in for a traumatized patient. Dr.
Shackfor prescribes anti-anxiety and antidepressant drugs, such Xanax and Tofranil, to many of the children he has examined.
“Cleaning up the city will not make these wounds go away,” he says in an interview in his crowded clinic. Outside his office, Abdullah Jacknun rocked his 5-year-old son on his knee. “The city is doing all it can to help us, but unless the bombing stops, the kids won’t stop crying,” Jacknun laments as his son begins to exhibit signs of frustration with the long wait.
International aid organizations have pitched in as well. Groups like the World Food Program provide the city with fresh vegetables and tons of flour to make bread, brought in on ships that come almost daily to the port. The World Health Organization has shipped medicines and vaccines. Once unloaded, the ships become medical flotillas, transporting wounded Misurata residents and families seeking to escape the rebel capital of Benghazi. Most of the boats, such as the Azzura, are Turkishowned and operated.
But while Misurata’s residents are happy that Western organizations have come to their rescue, what they really want is expanded NATO bombings. Throughout Libya, the rebels are frustrated with NATO’s slow pace of attack. Ibrahim Bayt al-Mal, the rebel’s military spokesman in Misurata, lashed out at the coalition at a press conference in mid-June, declaring, “NATO is to be blamed for Friday’s [June 10] deaths.” At the front in Karareem, standing next to an anti-aircraft gun welded onto a pick-up truck spray-painted black, al- Jarani made an urgent plea to US President Obama saying, “This man [Gaddafi] will destroy us. So please give more information to NATO about his [Gaddafi’s] positions.” But such wishes are unlikely to materialize. The Americans are reluctant to commit more resources, circumspect both of the financial strains a third war would place on their flagging economy and worried that another engagement would roll back the precious gains Obama has made with the Islamic world in the aftermath of his predecessor George Bush’s acrimonious relationship with Muslims. America’s European allies are equally hamstrung by a United Nations mandate that restricts their role to protecting civilians and rules out offensive operations targeting Gaddafi and his troops on the front lines of the military conflict.
Inspired by the largely non-violent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan uprising began in February as a popular campaign against a dictator in power for 42 years. But it soon was transformed into an armed insurrection when Gaddafi introduced tanks accompanied by fighter planes and rebels raided his arms depots. Four months later, the rebellion has reached a deadlock with the rebels unable to advance and Gaddafi no closer to exiting the stage than he was on the eve of NATO’s bombing campaign in March.
Lacking Washington’s high-tech weapons, it is doubtful that the European-led military coalition can muster the resources necessary to sustain a concerted bombing campaign. Until it does, al-Jarani and his fellow fighters will have to rely on their courage and determination to advance towards Tripoli and fulfill their quest to topple Gaddafi.