Undisciplined Libyan rebels no match for Gaddafi's forces
• Alarm over leaders' lack of control on battlefield
• Rebels blame setbacks on lack of heavy weapons
If there's an ammunition shortage, no one has told Khalif Saed. He was firing off a large machine gun welded to the back of a pick up truck, sending the contents of the heavy belt of bullets darting through the weapon and in to an empty sky.
It's a regular enough occurrence on the open desert road along which Libya's conflict has swung back and forth through this month. Sometimes the stream of fire is celebratory, as earlier this week when it was falsely claimed that Muammar Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte had fallen.
In recent days it seems to be more out of frustration as the rebels were forced back in the face of Gaddafi's attack. What it was not was aimed at was the enemy.
Asked why he was shooting when the revolution's military leadership has appealed for discipline and its fighters not to waste ammunition, Saed said simply: "It's my gun."
It isn't. He concedes that he seized it from a military base in Benghazi as Gaddafi's forces fled at the beginning of the revolution. But it says much about the state of the loosely organised rebel militia which foreign governments are now considering arming.
The revolutionary leadership is pleading for the west to send heavier weapons so that it can compete with Gaddafi's better armed forces amid reports that both sides in the conflict are running short of ammunition.
On the ground, rebels appeal for bigger rocket launchers, artillery and more air strikes. They are less concerned about claims of an ammunition shortage, which they do not necessarily see after seizing piles of rockets and shells from Gaddafi's army when it was retreating earlier this week. "We need what Gaddafi has," said Ghanem Barsi at a rebel checkpoint. Like many revolutionaries, he blamed their difficulties on weaponry rather than training and tactics. "We need Grads [rockets] like Gaddafi has. We need tanks like Gaddafi has. We need weapons that can kill his rockets and tanks."
The rebels' military spokesman, Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani, has claimed that "countries across the world" have offered weapons. He declined to reveal which governments and what kind of arms although he did say there was a desperate need for anti-tank weapons and radios because of chronic communications problems.
However, Bani did admit that no arms or ammunition have arrived as yet, including from neighbouring Egypt, which the rebels initially looked to as a source of practical support in part because of geography but also because there was a sense of revolutionary solidarity.
The Egyptians' reluctance may be shared by other governments as the rebel leadership faces some difficult issues that are likely to cause even the most sympathetic countries to pause.
The revolution lacks an organised military structure in spite of several attempts to stamp its authority on the volunteer army. Discipline is bad. Few of the fighters have proper military experience and they would need training in the use of weapons such as artillery. But the revolutionaries have made a strong point of saying they do not want foreign troops on Libyan soil.
The revolution's de facto finance minister, Ali Tarhouni, claims that there are 1,000 trained fighters among the rebels but there is little evidence of it on the battlefield where the anti-Gaddafi forces appear capable of advancing only when the way is cleared by foreign air strikes.
The problem is not solely the rebels' lack of more powerful weapons. In the past two days their disorganisation has shown as they have been badly outmanoeuvred by better-trained forces that have outflanked them with sweeps through the desert. The revolutionaries lack any cohesive defensive plan. Instead they fire wildly at the enemy and argue among themselves about what to do next and who should be giving orders before turning and fleeing.
Indeed, the rebels have seized a significant number of large weapons abandoned by retreating Gadaffi forces including a handful or more tanks this week after air strikes around Ajdabiya sent the government's army fleeing. But the tanks have yet to be put to use on the battlefield in part because of a lack of expertise in fighting with them.
The lack of control over Libya's rebel army also raises questions about how it might behave as an occupying force were it to take over a town such as Sirte which has not risen up in support of the revolution and where the Libyan leader is believed to retain some support.
Killings of alleged mercenaries in Benghazi, the rebels' de facto capital, as well as the large numbers of young men who have assumed an authority over ordinary citizens apparently only granted by their guns, will raise questions about how an ill disciplined and unaccountable force will behave on taking control of a potentially less welcoming city.
It would be embarrassing, to say the least, if even some of the rebels armed by Britain or the US were to carry out the kind of atrocities the west says it is intervening in Libya to prevent.
There must be an additional concern that any weapons sent to the revolutionaries could end up arming Gaddafi.
The rebel performance in recent weeks has amounted to rapid advances followed by almost as speedy retreats. It is one thing for the revolutionaries to jump in to their cars and pick-up trucks and race back tens of miles through the desert.
But large guns or armour cannot move at that speed, as has been demonstrated by the rebel capture of Gaddafi's abandoned tanks. It might take only one concerted push by government forces of the kind seen over the past two days for them to swallow up any new foreign weapon shipments and then turn them on the revolutionaries.