At the last checkpoint on the west side of Brega, where edgy young men are stockpiling rocket-propelled grenades and missiles against a rumored assault by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi, the question of “who’s in charge here” helps explain why Libya’s strange, low-intensity war could burn for some time yet.
The answer? Nobody. Or, somebody. Or, “the people,” depending on which of the checkpoint’s defenders you ask.
The reality is that the 100 or so men mustered at this point on the road toward Sirte, where a convoy of Qaddafi loyalists rumbled past yesterday morning in an effort to retake Brega and its oil terminal, don’t appear to have any professional military leadership at all.
Today, Libyans in Brega and Adjadbiya say there were bomb attacks by fighter jets loyal to Qaddafi, but as in the past, the bombs fell harmlessly.
Thousands of young men are signing up for a citizens’ militia in the city of Benghazi, 100 miles to the east, and say they’re eager to take the fight to Qaddafi in Tripoli. But here on the soft front line of Libya’s war, that seems unlikely, at least any time soon.
Qaddafi controls the next town, about 25 miles farther west. While regular Army and special forces units who defected to the rebellion in Benghazi say they’re preparing to push forward as far as Brega, there is no clear evidence yet that they or their commanders are willing to throw themselves into the fray.
Yesterday, this town wedged between the Mediterranean and the sprawling Libyan desert witnessed a pitched battle between forces loyal to Qaddafi and members of the uprising that left 14 dead.
The Qaddafi fighters, who by all accounts were poorly organized as well, were driven west, back out of the town, by nightfall, and reinforcements were rushed up from Benghazi and the closer eastern town of Adjabiya to protect against another assault.
Qaddafi wants this city
“Qaddafi wants this city very, very much. It’s about the oil,” says Abdel Salam, a paratrooper who has joined the fight against Qaddafi in Brega. “If he holds Brega in his hands, he thinks he can get America with him. If we hang on to it, maybe America will be with us” – a reference to the legitimacy he believes control of the oil can confer.
The assault on Brega – the second-biggest processing and oil shipping terminal in the country – along with the counteroffensive has set much of eastern Libya on edge. In Benghazi, concerns are growing that members of Qaddafi’s secret police are active in the city, and there’s evidence that some of them have access to the courthouse that is serving as a kind of revolutionary headquarters.
The dictators who faced uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were driven out within two weeks with relatively minimal bloodshed and without any battles for territory. But Qaddafi has been vowing to fight to the death. The country is now effectively split, and is beginning to confront the prospect of a prolonged struggle.
At the scattered checkpoints between Benghazi and Brega, nervous young men finger their AK47s and Belgian-made FN rifles. Others fire deafening bursts from anti-aircraft guns in shows of bravado, as their comrades – some in mismatched camouflage fatigues, others in their favorite track suits – squat in the shade and wait.
“He has fighter jets and better weapons, but after 41 years of abuse, we just can’t endure him anymore,” says Osama Abbas, a militia volunteer in Brega, who came up last night from Adjabiya. “We’re going to show him that we love death as much as he loves life. That’s how we’re going to win.”
A young shepherd caught in crossfire
That could well prove likely, as yesterday’s fighting shows.
Among the dead Wednesday was 13-year-old shepherd Hassan Omran, who was shot along with his two brothers while herding their flock in the dunes between the main part of town and the oil terminal. His brother Hussein is in a coma in a nearby hospital, while his other brother escaped with lighter injuries.
Six more Libyans from the area were killed yesterday, against three losses for Qaddafi’s side, says Ibrahim Said, head of the hospital in Adjabiya, which is treating 25 wounded. The bodies of Qaddafi’s fighters lie unclaimed and unidentified in the morgue, with people here speculating some of them were foreign mercenaries.