Welcome to the Libyan front. Have a juice box.
On the front lines of the struggle to remove Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, the Monitor's reporter describes sermons, battles, and a rag-tag militia desperate to press forward.
I turn to see what it’s all about. He’s waving a juice box at me, an AK-47 casually dangling from his shoulder. It’s the fifth juice box I’ve been handed today.
Along with frequent gifts of bananas and cookies, the high spirits of the rebels, and rides in commandeered minivans, my time at the front of this conflict sometimes feels like a strange school trip.
At other times, of course, it’s deadly serious. As forces loyal to Qaddafi pushed east along the Mediterranean toward the key oil town of Ras Lanuf this weekend, clashes in Bin Jawwad left seven rebels dead and 59 wounded, and forced the rebels to retreat. The Libyan civilian militia, which appears to remain in the headless lead of this uprising, is struggling to regroup as its members vacillate between optimism and fear.
This is very much a rebellion desperate to press forward, but which time and again can’t get started. There are regular soldiers and Islamist veterans of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq scattered here and there among the militia, but for the most part, it’s untrained and untested young men, desperate to remove Qaddafi but getting their first taste of the realities of war.
The battle for Bin Jawwad
Bin Jawwad, located just west of Ras Lanuf and seized by the rebels without a fight two days ago, was retaken by the government yesterday.
Over the course of the day, helicopters, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades pushed the rebels back into Ras Lanuf. Shortly after dawn today, a small unit of Qaddafi’s forces was spotted about six miles outside town.
Bin Jawwad is small potatoes. But Ras Lanuf and its oil terminal is a major prize. Libyan special forces that defected from the regime in mid-February are said by local militiamen to be frantically organizing its defenses, though evidence of their efforts is hard to find.
Around 4 p.m., forces loyal to Qaddafi reportedly hit an oil complex in Ras Lanuf with air strikes, further complicating the rag-tag movement's fight against the regime.
'We'll have breakfast in Tripoli.' Then, a U-turn.
Since Saturday, I’ve been in Ras Lanuf, now the eastern front in the simmering Libyan rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi.
This morning, the town had been largely abandoned by the militiamen on rumors that Qaddafi’s forces were massing for an assault. The man at my hotel's front desk pulled a framed poster of Qaddafi out of storage “just in case.”
I missed a press exodus from the hotel, but it didn’t matter. An American TV crew soon returned and let me spend the morning with them touring checkpoints. By mid-afternoon, most of the reporters were back at Ras Lanuf, mirroring the rebels' frequent races up and down the sole road linking the coastal towns.
Gunfire as a sort of posturing – from RPGs, antiaircraft guns, and assault rifles – is frequent at rebel checkpoints, but neither side has engaged in a really pitched battle so far, preferring raid-like engagements and then withdrawals.
On Saturday, for example, I hopped a ride in an empty minivan outside Ras Lanuf, whose driver insisted they were pressing “as far forward as we can. We’ll have breakfast in Tripoli,” he said, grinning. But a few miles west of Ras Lanuf, a driver headed the other way shouted that a fighter jet had been spotted.
My driver immediately did a U-turn and I had to grab his shoulder and shout to get him to slow down long enough to allow me off at the Ras Lanuf checkpoint before he sped back east toward safety.
Minitanks in the breakdown lane
While there are conflicting reports about the movements of both Qaddafi's forces and special forces who have defected to the side of the rebels, Ras Lanuf is definitely being reinforced.
As the morning wore on Monday, the militiamen began to trickle back in from the east. Finally around noon, two armored personnel carriers (APCs) – minitanks, really – began rolling toward Ras Lanuf.
Local militiamen took the move forward of the APCs as a sign that lost momentum would soon be regained.
One of the APCs soon stopped by the side of the road. Pickup trucks full of excited, chanting men surrounded it along with a few TV crews. One of the men, wearing a Russian tank helmet, chased down a donkey grazing nearby and rode it, slapping its neck to get it to turn and calling it “Qaddafi.”
After about 15 minutes, the APC crew surged forward again. My traveling companions and I followed it back west a few minutes later and soon passed it, apparently broken down along the side of the road.
No fuel at the front
Another key problem that could sideline the rebels is the short supply of fuel in Ras Lanuf, despite the presence of a massive refinery.
Yesterday, I was with a group of rebels – stringing heavy-caliber ammunition into belts and carrying boxes of RPGs and grenades – when they pulled down the fence around a fuel depot that American engineers were working at just a few weeks ago. The rebels were trying to fuel their truck.
Most rebels dash back east about 30 miles to Al Uqaylah to refuel, raising questions about why fuel tankers haven’t been arranged at the front. If the APCs, or some of the Russian-built tanks the rebels control, really get involved, fuel will be desperately needed.
From a truck, sheikh with a loudspeaker rallies the crowds
More evidence of a lack of direction was evident in Ras Lanuf on Sunday. Another jet had been spotted (a Libyan government MiG was reportedly shot down not far from here on Saturday) and a furious argument broke out between a religious sheikh with a loudspeaker mounted on a truck, urging the young men to head forward, and another man urging everyone to pull back to Brega and consolidate.
Suddenly, a young man with long, almost matted curls came charging out of the crowd at the man calling for a retreat, pointing his pistol at him with the finger inside the trigger guard.
A few others tried to take his gun away but he resisted, and fired a shot over the head of the crowd. He then charged to a patch of clear ground, took a grenade from his pocket, and tossed it to the side of the road, where it exploded.
“We can die there or we can die there,” he shouted, alternating between holding the pistol to his temple and gesturing furiously in the direction of Bin Jawwad. “Let’s die there! God is great!”
Surprisingly, he began to win some of the crowd over. The sheikh started to lead chants of “God is great” through his loudspeaker. A few pickup trucks with mounted heavy machine guns started to move west, the sheikh’s truck bringing up the rear.
The wild-eyed young man tried to jump on the hood of the truck, using the moving front wheel to boost himself. He falls flat on his back as the sheikh speeds off. But no matter. After a 100 yards the tiny parade slows, turns, and comes back.
Comic and frightening scenes of confusion like that are all around me. But there is also a firm commitment from others.
“I’m a man who believes in God and wants freedom. We all feel that way,” said Ahmed Kaylani, a heavily bearded man from Derna who has “No God but God” written on one side of his rifle stock, and a slogan calling Qaddafi a tool of Israel on the other. “Almost every man here has lost a family member to Qaddafi. He’s a terrorist.”
Militiamen in my hotel room
Arriving back at the hotel this afternoon, the Qaddafi poster has been put away and a small group of militiamen are in charge. One of them says not to worry about the owner, we can stay as long as we like.
The hotel employees have left, though a man with an AK-47 on his shoulder is working the espresso machine.
I go up to my room to find that a group of Libyan militiamen have been squatting there, getting in showers and a little television time after fighting in Bin Jawwad the day before. One, Walis, repeats the oft-quoted line from rebels that “Qaddafi has planes and mercenaries; we have our strength and God on our side.”
There is a large poster at the entrance to the main highway from town that says, “Bare chests against planes” in English, but the brave young fighters here would clearly prefer to not be dealing with the planes.
When I tell Walis I’m from the United States, he says he’d like a US-led no-fly zone imposed on the country (there have been at least two ineffectual but frightening air strikes around Ras Lanuf today) but nothing more.
“US troops or air attacks would be going too far," he says. "This is our revolution.”