Jewish World Review March 11, 2011 / 8 Adar II, 5771
Libyan rebels' ragtag army left in disarray
By David Zucchino
JDABIYA, Libya (MCT) Nabil Mustafa Kharraz rushed to the front without a weapon. He ended up in a grimy provincial hospital with rocket shrapnel in his brain and a bloodied bandage wrapped around his head like a turban.
"He's a brave boy," said his father,
In his rumpled bed a day after fleeing a withering assault by government forces in the oil city of Ras Lanuf, Nabil promised his father he would fight again — though he still doesn't know how to fire a gun.
Armed only with intense devotion to the revolution in eastern
The idealistic protesters-turned-soldiers grew overconfident and inattentive after two swift triumphs. Then they retreated in chaos when Gadhafi unleashed his professional army and its punishing heavy weapons and warplanes.
That resurgent army is now pushing eastward relentlessly, scattering the outgunned rebels. All that stands between Gadhafi and rebel headquarters in Benghazi are disorganized volunteers and army defectors spread thinly along the coastal highway.
Not a single heavy-gun emplacement is dug in along the 140-mile desert highway from the rebels' new defensive line in Port Brega to Benghazi. And all that protects Port Brega, a strategic oil hub, are the same outdated weapons that proved so ineffective in Ras Lanuf.
At a rebel checkpoint about 25 miles east of Ras Lanuf late Saturday, fighters flung themselves into the desert each time a government warplane passed overhead. Gun trucks ferrying rebel reinforcements — many unarmed — sped west to the front, passing ambulances with blue lights flashing headed in the opposite direction.
It is an asymmetrical fight. The rebels can muster only ancient hand-cranked antiaircraft guns, heavy machine-guns, recoilless rifles, rockets, grenade launchers and assault rifles.
The pro-Gadhafi forces fight with what the military calls "stand-off" weapons. From a distance, they pummel the rebels with airstrikes, artillery, tanks and, according to rebel fighters and opposition leaders, from guns aboard ships in the
"I never saw them with my own eyes,"
"If they would only fight us man to man, we'd destroy them," Sharf said, grimacing in his hospital bed. He spotted an image of Gadhafi on a hospital TV and made a brushing motion, as if swatting a fly.
The rebels, who fight from private pickup trucks and cars spray-painted "People's Army of
For the first time Saturday, motorists waited in long lines outside gas stations on the coastal highway. Some stations ran dry. The fighting has closed many gasoline refineries, triggering a fuel shortage in the rebel-held east.
Just one week ago, the rebels were literally dancing in the streets of Bin Jawwad, a desert outpost west of Ras Lanuf they seized
Port Brega, 85 miles east of Ras Lanuf, is now in Gadhafi's sights. The dictator's son
The Tripoli regime seems confident after battlefield triumphs in the east and in rebellious Zawiya, 30 miles west of the capital. A government-owned cell phone company recently sent a taunting mass text message to subscribers in the east, including many rebel fighters:
"Be happy. We are coming to liberate you soon!"
There is little coherent rebel leadership. At military bases in Benghazi, self-described "colonels" in mismatched military uniforms smoke cigarettes in dilapidated offices, watching the war unfold on Al-Jazeera, the satellite news channel.
Special forces soldiers who defected from Gadhafi's eastern army are now providing badly needed leadership, said opposition spokesman
Likewise, the businessmen and lawyers directing the rebel national council know little of military affairs. They refer reporters to an array of ever-shifting military spokesmen, few of whom spend any time at the front.
All week, spokesmen promised that tanks would arrive soon to save the day in Ras Lanuf. But the only tank visible on the road from Benghazi to the front Saturday was an ancient, rusting Soviet model. Teenaged boys played on the turret.
The rebels haven't seized on their singular advantage: They are fast and nimble. Lightly armed Taliban guerrillas in
Only since Friday have the rebels even dispersed gun trucks across the desert to escape airstrikes. But scores of fighters still congregate in clusters, providing prime targets.
At their westernmost secured checkpoint Saturday, fighters struggled to put on a brave front. Their bravado and enthusiasm remained intact, but there were tensions within the ranks. Fighters argued openly over tactics, and a few scuffles broke out.
For the first time the day before, rebels required written permission for journalists to drive to the front. Some rebels now prohibit photographs of gun emplacements — after posing and grinning for photos next to those same weapons all week.
The opposition leadership is begging Western powers for a no-fly zone to negate Gadhafi's air superiority. Officials have said they will try to buy heavy weapons on their own if Western nations don't step in.
Resentment toward the U.S. over its policy is growing.
"Where is America?" asked Issam Darebi, manning the main rebel checkpoint in Port Brega. "All they do is talk, talk, talk. They need to get rid of these planes killing Libyan people."
Many rebels at the western checkpoint said they would need better and heavier weapons to prevail. Others, repeating the same promises made in Ras Lanuf before retreating, swore they would make a final stand if Gadhafi's forces stormed Port Brega.
"We won't pull back," said Montassar Rahani, 23, a student wearing sneakers and sweat pants. "We'll die here first."
A gray-bearded rebel in a
"We'll have heavier weapons, more training — soon, shabab," he shouted over a megaphone, addressing the young fighters. "But for now, organize yourselves!"
The fighters have begun writing rosters with the names of men in their vehicles. No one knows how many fighters there are.
As the rebels struggle to hold ground, the war creeps toward them. In the darkened halls of the Ajdabiya hospital, 45 miles east of Port Brega, Dr. Anis Bargty predicted more casualties.
"Yesterday the ambulance delivered just arms and legs," he said. "A terrible day, and there will be more."
In Bed 6 in the recovery ward,
"I didn't get a chance to attack anybody," Ali complained.
It hardly mattered, for he did not have a gun. He had been issued a single grenade, which he clutched all the way to the hospital.
He laid it by his bedside until a friend took it for safekeeping. When his wounds heal, Ali vowed, he will retrieve the grenade and return to the front, even as it grinds east toward the hospital itself.
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