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In Libya, bastions of Kadafi loyalists remain

Working-class Tripoli strongholds are filled with desperation that contrasts with the exultation elsewhere. Many are fearful for the future — and their concerns resonate.

August 28, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — They are quiet now, absent from the airwaves that they long dominated, gone from the streets that were once theirs.

Their longtime leader is on the run, his compound ransacked, his once-ubiquitous image now employed on doormats.

But the supporters of Moammar Kadafi are still out there in working-class neighborhoods such as Abu Salim, a loyalist bastion subdued only last week after intense battles that left its roads littered with shell casings, its buildings riddled with bullets and many of its men dead or in custody.

Photos: The Libyan civil war

"We ask for one thing: We want Moammar Kadafi back to fix what has gone wrong," said Amer bin Ashour as he stood under a shade tree Sunday along one of Abu Salim's main drags. "A lot of people here don't like what's going on in Libya, but they're afraid to say so because they might get shot."

The comments from Ashour are unique only in that he is willing to attach his name to them. Many residents of this battered district appear to still see their livelihoods and fates inextricably linked to a government that is no more. A sense of desperation contrasts with the exultation elsewhere.

At the same time, pro-Kadafi sentiments are no longer universally voiced in this loyalist stronghold.

"We want our liberty — I am with the rebels," declared one of Ashour's neighbors, businessman Jumma Maclouf, 50.

Rebels say the vast majority of Libyans either laud the new reality or are willing to accept it, even in loyalist districts that house what U.S. officials in a different setting once labeled "dead enders" — Iraqis who continued to support President Saddam Hussein after his 2003 overthrow.

"The people of Abu Salim are with the revolution: Only a few Kadafi people are hidden among the cracks," said Saleh Hussein, a violinist turned rebel now manning a neighborhood checkpoint.

Yet the previous evening, a sniper had fired a bullet at Hussein and a partner, narrowly missing both. That the loyalist resistance has devolved into occasional sniper shots underscores the extent to which the insurgents have consolidated control of the capital only eight days after arriving here.

Despite their unexpectedly quick advance on the capital, Libya's new leaders worry that the euphoria over their swift victory could fade if shortages of gasoline, running water and electricity persist. They also acknowledge a kind of psychological barrier: convincing Libyans that a new government can run the country at least as efficiently as Kadafi, the only leader most Libyans have ever known.

"Some people feel that Libya cannot live without Kadafi," said a rebel commander who asked to be identified only as Abdul, citing the fear of assassination from Kadafi "hands" still lurking in Tripoli. "Hopefully they can reclaim their honor and dignity once they are free."

On the streets of Abu Salim, some residents acknowledged a deep disbelief that Libya could run smoothly without Kadafi, who ruled the country in autocratic fashion for more than four decades.

Hassan Trebulsi, 30, a civil servant, said the notion of a Kadafi-less Libya had seemed somehow "unnatural," and he worried about a rebel takeover. But Trebulsi says he has changed his mind.

"I was relieved to see the rebels are not mercenaries from abroad, like we were told, but were Libyans like us," said Trebulsi. "And they treated us with respect."

But that sentiment is not unanimous on the streets of Abu Salim.

A group of women inside a bullet-scarred apartment complex said a pair of men had been arrested by the rebels last week and had not been heard from since. "This to me is unjust," said one woman, who gave her name as Aziza and said her brother had been among those detained, apparently suspected of pro-Kadafi affiliation.

A few yards away, several men complained anonymously about a nation they saw veering toward chaos even as Eid al Fitr, the celebrations that mark the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, approached.

"Everything was all right here before the rebels came," said Emad, 26, a former navy enlisted man, now unemployed. "We should be preparing for Eid. But now no one is sure there will be any stability."

Asked what Kadafi had done for them, Emad said he and other military men and government supporters were sometimes invited to Bab Azizia, Kadafi's now-looted compound in Tripoli. Ceremonial gatherings there were a regular feature of Kadafi's rule.

With time and improved living conditions, rebel supporters argue, even hard-line Kadafi backers such as those in Abu Salim will accept the inevitability of a new chapter in Libyan history. The rebel leadership has said it will prosecute only those Kadafi supporters who had "blood on their hands" or were corrupt, and has vowed not to seek retribution against other followers of the longtime government.

"Most of these people who were with Kadafi were not really true supporters: The green flag didn't mean that much to them," said Abdul Basit Mohammed, an Abu Salim resident, referring to Kadafi's signature banner. "I think they will accept the revolution and be all right with it."

Photos: The Libyan civil war patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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