Libya's rebels struggle to retake territory, despite UN help

A key test of whether Libya's rebels will be able to make headway is Ajdabiya, a hotbed of anti-Qaddafi sentiment. So far, it's not looking promising for the rebels.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
Libyan rebels stop on the road as mortars from Muammar Qaddafi's forces are fired on them on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Tuesday, March 22. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Qaddafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat just last week.

International airpower has stemmed Muammar Qaddafi’s march into Libya's east, reinvigorating hope and resolve in the rebel capital of Benghazi, which was on the verge of being overrun on Saturday when French, US, and British warplanes sprang into action.

“We’d lost hope,” says Ahmad Dabbous, a clothing wholesaler who’s been carrying a rifle for 30 days now. “But Obama stood with us. Now I can’t see Qaddafi moving east again.”

Now comes the real test. So far, the international support hasn’t given the rebellion’s lightly armed and largely untrained militia the ability to drive Colonel Qaddafi’s forces from population centers they claimed in a series of brutal assaults.

If the rebels are unable to make headway and Qaddafi remains defiant, international forces could face the unhappy choice between abandoning the uprising or committing to a much longer engagement than originally envisioned.

Rebels struggle to retake Ajdabiya, an easy target

A key test is Ajdabiya, a hotbed of anti-Qaddafi sentiment and the last major city on the road to Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital.

The international coalition’s aerial superiority makes another Qaddafi offensive on Benghazi improbable. That much is clear from his destroyed tanks and grad missile launchers on the road to Ajdabiya, with turrets blown off and pools of congealed metal beside them.

But as Benghazi families continue to make pilgrimages south to celebrate the wreckage of Qaddafi’s army, the rebels are stalled outside Ajdabiya, where fierce firefights Monday and Tuesday have done little to overturn a current stalemate.

Fighter jets and cruise missiles may be good for destroying Qaddafi’s armor on the country’s desert roads, but in places like Ajdabiya where Qaddafi’s forces are mixed in with the local population and rebel fighters, they’re of little immediate use.

If Ajdabiya – lacking power and largely cut off from the rest of Libya for more than a week now – has been so difficult to retake, how much harder will it be for the untrained rebels to push west toward Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown filled with loyalists, and on to Tripoli?

And will the international coalition that has given the rebels breathing room be able to hold together in the face of electorates suspicious of another war until the rebels can find and press an advantage? US officials have publicly insisted the mission is only to protect Libyan civilians, not to provide air cover for a rebel advance west.

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'We love Sarkozy, Obama'

Indeed, support for Sarkozy and Obama may be flagging in their home countries, but here they’re heroes, at least for a few days. One man in Zueitina, a small town that hosts an oil refinery and power station about 10 miles northeast of Ajdabiya, insists his next son will be named Sarkozy.

But the rebel militiamen gathered in force in Zueitina are increasingly frustrated.

“We love Sarkozy, we love Obama,” says a heavily bearded young man, lounging in the shade with his rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). “But where are they today?”

Rebels on the outskirts of Ajdabiya say Qaddafi still has fighters at the east gate of town, and on Monday there were sharp clashes in the area. In the afternoon, two ambulances carrying dead fighters paused for the milling crowd to survey their martyrs before carrying them back to their families in the east.

To be sure, the rebel leadership in Benghazi and untrained fighters on the frontlines are confident that Qaddafi’s people will soon be pushed out of Ajdabiya, a city of about 100,000.

“His tanks outside the city have been destroyed, he’s lost his fuel trucks, his ammunition trucks,” says Abdel Moneim, a pharmacist turned fighter. “His people can’t hang on by themselves.”

A gun, four days of training, and he's off

But the experiences of men like Gaballa Bin Halumi, a young English teacher, illustrate just how untrained the rebels are.

Mr. Halumi became an unexpected revolutionary when someone begged him to help sack Qaddafi’s Benghazi barracks in mid-February.

A unit of Qaddafi’s soldiers were fleeing out of a breach in the compound wall made by a kamikaze attack from a man driving an explosives laden truck. As one soldier came by Halumi he said he was with the rebels but didn’t have civilian clothes and feared for his life. He pressed his AK-47 into Halumi’s hands and ran.

Halumi has since received four days of artillery training and now serves as a junior officer in the rag-tag rebel militia. He says he’s been given orders to prevent fighters from advancing too far forward.

The French jets saved us all – they did an amazing job,” he says, speaking of the weekend airstrikes. “But we’ve been told if we get forward, and mix in, there’s a good chance we all could be hit.”

Halumi was in the rebel advance west to the towns of Bin Jawwad, Ras Lanuf, and Brega almost two weeks ago, and was among the last of the rebels to make it out of Ras Lanuf alive when Qaddafi counterattacked, with mortars and rockets zeroing in on exposed rebel positions.

He says he was given four days of training with a group of 120 volunteers with members of the regular army who defected to the uprising in late February. He says of his original group, only 15 remain active. “Some were wounded, but most of them were killed at Ras Lanuf,” he says.

Rebels vow to be more methodical now

While Halumi acknowledges the scene around him at Zueitina is chaotic – there is no radio equipment, no evidence of orders being given or received among the hundreds of men milling at the crossroads – he says hard lessons were learned in the defeats at places like Ras Lanuf, and there will be no willy-nilly push forward again.

“At Ras Lanuf, at Brega, we’d won so much so fast, we were just believing in God and convinced there was no way we could be stopped,” he says. “Now we understand we need help, organization. We are going to be more methodical.”

But pressing forward is still uncertain. Sirte, Qaddafi’s major stronghold after Tripoli, lies west over 300 miles of lightly inhabited desert. “Keeping Sirte is his whole objective, the key to his survival. “God willing, we’ll be there soon.”

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