Good Reads: Qaddafi's African mercenaries, Tripoli's water, and Mexican gangs

Today's must reads include an interview with a mercenary in Timbuktu; Qaddafi's control of water pipelines; and how a US government policy to arm Mexican gangs may have backfired.

Francois Mori/AP
A man, suspected of being a mercenary for Muammar Qaddafi, is held in a district sports center next to the medina, set up as a jail in Tripoli, Libya, Tuesday, Aug. 30.

Good journalism is dead. We know this because good journalists tell us this every day, in well-written, well-researched, logical, persuasive stories about the dying news industry. We trust these articles, because they are published by reputable news organizations that still care about things like fact-checking and penetrating questions and deep analysis.

All of which proves that good journalism is not, in fact, dead. (Terribly undervalued, maybe.… Not that I’m complaining.)

Today’s collection of Good Reads is a reminder that good journalism goes beyond mere information – that pesky little crawl of type at the bottom of the TV screen – into a satisfying exploration of an issue that gives readers a new way to think about issues that affect their lives.

Timbuktu and mercenaries

In the fabled city of Timbuktu (see map), where the deserts of the Sahara meet up with the mighty Niger River, The Atlantic’s reporter on the ground, Peter Gwin, meets up with Tuareg mercenaries who fought to defend ousted Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Qaddafi from his own people.

Mr. Qaddafi’s use of mercenaries from all over Africa was so common that when citizens see people with darker skin than theirs, they assume that person is a mercenary and promptly hand that person over to the authorities, or, more horribly, settle the matter violently themselves.

In the Atlantic piece, Mr. Gwin describes an interview with a Tuareg fighter, given the pseudonym Abdullah, recently returned from Libya. His unit in Tripoli was told to disperse anti-Qaddafi demonstrators.

“That was easy,” he said with startling nonchalance. "We would kill three or four in the front of the crowd and they all ran away."

And when Qaddafi said in February that his fighters would hunt for protesters house by house, Abdullah and his men took the Libyan leader at his word. "To be honest, it is true. We believed what Qaddafi told us. We believed we would go there and kill everyone."

Fight for water

Libyan news continues to dominate headlines, and in the Monitor’s Backchannels blog yesterday, Dan Murphy reported that the anti-Qaddafi forces have rejected a United Nations proposal to send in peacekeepers. The rebels say they are not in a civil war, but rather in a fight to defend themselves against the forces of a dictator. Now on the outskirts of Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, the rebels have given the city an ultimatum to surrender by this weekend. If not, the rebels say they will take the city by force.

But while all attention focuses on the imminent battle to come in Sirte, there is a different battle rebels will have to face 400 miles to the south in the Libyan desert. This will be a battle over control of the flow of drinking water. David Elders, a reporter for the McClatchy newspaper agency, tells us how Qaddafi’s continued control of underground water sources – piped to the coast via Qaddafi’s “Man Made River” project – present the rebel forces’ greatest challenge.

Mr. Enders writes:

“As water lines run dry and prices for bottled water skyrocket, Tripoli's burgeoning water crisis reveals the limitations of the rebel leadership, which still must consolidate its control over vast parts of the country even as it tries to exert its authority over a shortage-plagued capital.”

“Fakher Badr, a member of the rebel National Transitional Council's stabilization team in Tripoli, said that he knew of no plans for securing southern oil and water facilities, and that his committee was only just beginning its work after arriving in Tripoli last week.

“For now, he said, trucking in bottled water will have to do.”

Fast and Furious fallout

And in today’s annals of gung-ho law-enforcement, Will Oremus of Slate Magazine recounts how the US government attempted to fight Mexican drug gangs by proxy, giving American weapons to rival Mexican drug gangs. He points out an earlier investigative report in which the Los Angeles Times found that “Operation Fast and Furious,” as the guns-to-gangs program was called, continued even after it emerged that nearly 2,000 guns had gone missing.

Surely, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But given Mexico’s current spate of violence, more recently with the shootout and fire at a packed casino in Monterrey, news that the US government may have fomented that violence further by arming drug gangs is, in a word, awkward.

Part of the problem, Mr. Oremus points out, is that the US government agency in charge of the operation – the Bureau for Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) – has not had a director since 2006. Neither the Bush nor the Obama administration has been able to name a new director because of the lobbying power of gun-rights groups in Washington.

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