Reporters in Tripoli are having a hard time sorting out fact from fiction. Rebel fighters are roaming the streets of Libya's capital, more organized fighters have reportedly breached the walls of Qaddafi's sprawling Bab al-Azizya compound, and loyalist gunmen are set up on roofs around the cities, taking potshots at all who pass.
So I'll caveat this post with the fact that I'm in Boston, that the situation in Tripoli could turn on a dime, and that any firm predictions about how and when the end will come for Muammar Qaddafi are likely to be proven wrong. This is not to say he isn't finished. He is. Reuters is reporting from the ground that rebel fighters have moved into the Bab al-Azizya after fierce fighting for much of the day (residents in nearby homes say stray bullets have filled the street for hours).
The compound – about four square miles of private homes, barracks, and military command centers – is both the symbolic and actual heart of Qaddafi's regime, forbidden to all but regime loyalists until just days ago. Rebels are convinced there may be a network of underground tunnels there (though a similar conviction about tunnels riddling the ground beneath Qaddafi's main barracks in Benghazi wasn't born out when the eastern city fell in February).
The fact that Qaddafi's forces can't hold the line there shows how much NATO sorties and the improving rebel fighters have tipped the scales against him.
But for all the tactical skill of the rebel army based in western Libya that choked off Qaddafi's ties to the outside world in the past month with help from French and British trainers, video from Tripoli and surrounding towns continues to show a lack of radios and basic communications equipment, and frequently a lack of discipline (exhibit A: The constant celebratory gunfire in Green Square the night the rebels rolled into the center of town).
That implies that securing Tripoli is far from a straightforward task. The city is bound to have die-hard loyalists who have profited immensely under Qaddafi and believe regime propaganda that says the rebels are agents of foreign powers bent on Libya's destruction. There are also likely to be far more people who have supported the regime, and are afraid of rebel reprisals if they lay down their weapons.
Under Qaddafi, dissent was brutally crushed, his torture chambers filled with people who dared to speak out against his capricious, one-man rule. In the early '80s, as Qaddafi tightened his grip, public executions were carried out by his revolutionary committees.
Now that the shoe is being fitted for the other foot, many in Tripoli likely fear they'll be dealt with in the same fashion – at the hands of rebel fighters. In the absence of clear evidence that the rebels in the city are under a unified command, whose leaders could reach out and guarantee security for Qaddafi's fighters in exchange for laying down their arms, a rational choice for many may be to fight on.
Adding to the confusion was the strange episode of Seif al-Islam, Qaddafi's son and a key political fixer for his father who has frequently dismissed Libya's uprising as filled with "rats." On Monday, rebels claimed that Seif had been arrested – a position supported by top International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who has warrants on both Seif and Qaddafi himself.
But early in the morning on Tuesday, Seif rolled up to the Rixos Hotel in a convoy to chat with foreign journalists and to promise continued resistance.
Mohammed Qaddafi, another son, was said to be arrested – and even gave an interview on Al Jazeera while he said he was in rebel custody at his home. That interview was cut short when gunfire broke out in the house, and Mohammed began saying his prayers. The line went dead. A few hours later he was reported to have escaped – but who exactly originally held him, and the details of his escape, are unclear.
The confusion surrounding the two sons sends as clear a signal as any that the fog of war remains thick – and the fact that Seif was able to safely navigate the center of Tripoli tells us that real control of Tripoli remains contested.
What does this mean in the long run? Not that Qaddafi will win the day. Any chance of that seems well past. But the speed with which rebel leaders can coordinate their efforts (many of the fighters in Tripoli don't answer to the eastern-based Transitional National Council, at least not yet), consolidate their positions in Tripoli, and pacify the city (with a minimum of bloodshed), will set the tone for the transitional period.
Days of street fighting in Tripoli will create room for looting, for Qaddafi's holdouts to make mischief, and for challenges to the credibility of the soon-to-be victorious rebels to be challenged by Libyans ready to jettison Qaddafi but perhaps unwilling to cede their own positions of influence inside the country.