Allies Count on Defiant Streak in Libya to Drive Out Qaddafihttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/
TRIPOLI, Libya — The official government tour was supposed to show Western journalists the suffering of people who had been driven from their homes by the allied bombing in the city of Mizda, Libya. But the people themselves did not cooperate: when a half-dozen of them emerged from their tent encampment and fired rifle shots, the visitors were forced to beat a hasty retreat.
It was a fleeting display of the kind of defiance of official authority that coalition forces are counting on from the people and tribes of western Libya, who dominate the country’s military, to drive Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power.
In the allies’ shadow war in Libya, airstrikes are aimed not only at Colonel Qaddafi’s tanks and artillery, but also at the elite of his remaining armed forces in an effort to persuade them to turn against their embattled leader. He may be able to hold out against Western warplanes, but he cannot long survive without the loyalty of certain tribes — the Warfalla, the Margaha and his own people, the Qaddafa — whose members now dominate the government’s only dependable militias.
“The question is how much pressure can you put on the tribal elements in the armed forces?” asked Gary Li, a defense analyst who has studied the Libyan military. “Can you turn his own tribe against him? And just who out of the reduced army remaining stays with Qaddafi until the bitter end?”
As Colonel Qaddafi’s militias beat back the rebels’ advance in eastern Libya on Tuesday, it was clear that the last 10 days of airstrikes had failed to cripple his forces enough to erase their advantage in firepower. Nor have the strikes renewed the uprising that briefly threatened his stronghold in Tripoli, the capital, four weeks ago.
“Where is Sarkozy?” the rebels in Bin Jawwad, Libya, lamented on Tuesday when they did not get the air cover that they had come to expect and that had been ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, President Obama and other Western leaders.
By the late afternoon, the rebels were retreating, and Colonel Qaddafi’s forces had pushed past Bin Jawwad for an attack on the oil town of Ras Lanuf, which the rebels had retaken only on Sunday. Reports late Tuesday said the loyalists had advanced as far east as Brega, another strategic oil town. The events on Tuesday, which amounted to a rout, erased days of rebel gains.
Because Colonel Qaddafi’s forces had been weakened even before the allies began the air campaign, the rebels’ weakness on Tuesday was all the more pronounced, said Henry Boyd, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Of his roughly 50,000-man army, Colonel Qaddafi evidently trusted only two militias — with a total of about 10,000 men — to deploy against the rebels, Mr. Boyd said. They are the 32nd Brigade, a formidable unit that is loyal to his son Khamis, and the Ninth Regiment, which has less training but is now believed to be under the direction of another son, Muatassim. The fighters in both units are mostly members of the Warfalla, Margaha and Qaddafa tribes.
Mr. Boyd wrote in an e-mail message that Colonel Qaddafi’s equipment advantage had been “significantly degraded” by the allied airstrikes. But satellite images indicated, he said, that the Libyan leader had as many as 20 barracks for his forces, with an emphasis on tanks and artillery, almost all of them garrisoned along the Mediterranean coast.
Most were concentrated around Tripoli “in keeping with Qaddafi’s apparent primary focus on internal, rather than external threats,” Mr. Boyd said.
About three units appeared especially significant, including two around the city of Zlitan in areas that residents said had been hit hard by the airstrikes.
But Mr. Li, the defense analyst, warned that Colonel Qaddafi might be planning to return to the strategy he used early in the conflict and pull back his forces to his two coastal power bases: to Surt, his tribal hometown, and to Tripoli, where the heavy civilian population would protect his fighters from allied air power.
And within the cities, Mr. Li argued, even a few tanks or other heavy weapons would allow Colonel Qaddafi’s forces to hold off the rebels and elude Western airstrikes. “A deadlock,” Mr. Li called it.
The wild card is the divided loyalties of the tribes who dominate the military’s upper echelons.
Although Colonel Qaddafi has surrounded himself with guards drawn from his own tribe and those close to it, a coup would not be unexpected.
A 1986 disagreement between Colonel Qaddafi and a cousin from the Qaddafa tribe who had been a top military commander ended when the cousin’s body was left at the gates of Colonel Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.
And a 1993 coup attempt by officers from the Warfalla and Qaddafa tribes set off more than a decade of retaliation by Colonel Qaddafi against members of the tribes — a campaign that many Libyans said had left deep resentments.
Some analysts said that Colonel Qaddafi’s fear of betrayal by even his own tribal cousins was one reason that he had turned to his sons to lead his defense.
The big tribes close to Colonel Qaddafi have stayed more or less loyal to him in part because so many of their men enjoy the salaries and the prestige of high-ranking positions in the Libyan military. A professor at a university in the Warfalla homeland, for example, said his classes were almost all filled by women because so many local men had taken high-paying jobs as soldiers.
As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has made clear in recent days, Western strategists are betting that Colonel Qaddafi’s allegiances will frayed and finally be severed by the loss of tanks, artillery, barracks and, ultimately, by a high death toll.
In Bin Jawwad on Tuesday, it was the rebels who feared betrayal.
After advancing within 45 miles of Surt on Monday, they spent most of Tuesday retreating as the government’s fighters advanced behind a flurry of artillery fire and missiles. By the early afternoon, government shells were landing in Bin Jawwad, where rebels were already worried that residents did not support the uprising.
The rebels’ initial response to the attack seemed to work, for a time, and showed at least fledgling attempts at organization.
Rebel trucks, mounted with missile and artillery launchers and working more or less in tandem, took up positions facing west and southeast. As their missiles lit up the sky, dozens of other rebel vehicles, lying in wait, started to advance to the western edge of town.
“Go search their houses!” a fighter yelled. “They ran!” said another. Their victory lasted barely an hour.
Artillery shells exploded to the west, and began to move closer. Gunfire hit the sand near the rebel fighters’ feet. A bullet, perhaps from a sniper, hit one young fighter in the heart, killing him. At least 14 others were wounded. Rebels said some of the shelling appeared to come from the sea.
The attack — by loyal government troops, and maybe even armed civilians — indicated that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces remain unified, at least for now.
After the retreat to Ras Lanuf, the government’s heavy weapons had found them within two hours.
A fighter at the hospital in Ras Lanuf, Taher Abu Farwa, called the retreat a setback, not a defeat. “It took us eight days to take Ajdabiya,” he said, predicting the rebels could still advance on Surt. But not without airstrikes.“I swear to God,” he said. “It would be a massacre.”