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So who are Libya's rebels exactly?

With the US expanding ties – and possibly aid – to the Libyan rebels fighting Muammar Qaddafi, it's a question a lot of people are asking. But it isn't an easy one to answer.

By Staff writer / July 19, 2011

Libyan rebels pray at the frontline, 37 miles west of Ajdabiyah on July 18.

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters

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From almost the moment the embryonic Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) began to come together in Benghazi and other eastern cities that successfully rose up against Muammar Qaddafi's rule in February, a deceptively simple, hard-to-answer question began to dominate the international conversation: "Who are these people?"

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That question contains a host of subsidiary questions with implications for what the US and other foreign powers involved in the Libyan war should do: "Are they democrats, will they be friendly to the West, do they want an Islamist government, do they have it in them to lead Libya towards a more open society?" One of the most common criticisms here in the US about America's backing for the NATO air campaign against Mr. Qaddafi is that we don't know who it is, really, that we're helping.

Now, with the US deepening ties with the TNC and considering releasing some of the $30 billion of Qaddafi funds currently frozen in US accounts to the rebels, those questions are gaining renewed urgency. Last week, the US joined France and other nations in recognizing the TNC as the "legitimate governing authority" of Libya in a meeting with rebel representatives in Istanbul. Over the weekend, US Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz met with Qaddafi representatives in Tunisia, the first such meeting since the war began and a sign of the growing push for a managed departure of Qaddafi from power.

IN PICTURES: Libya conflict

I spent six weeks in Eastern Libya in February and March and was warmly welcomed everywhere I went. The country and its people are also, like most places, hard to pigeon-hole. Libya is a very, very socially conservative place. Most women cover their hair. But the first person to great me on the "liberated" side of the Egyptian-Libyan border was a beaming woman with short hair, a black leather jacket, and an AK-47 slung over her shoulder. A day later, I met Maj. Salma Faraj Issa, the spokeswoman for Maj. Gen. Suleiman Mahmoud, a Qaddafi officer who'd defected with his forces when ordered to fire on unarmed protesters in Tobruk in the early days of the uprising.

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