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Kadafi marshals show of strength in Libyan capital

Moammar Kadafi and the opposition offer conflicting claims on who is gaining the upper hand in the Libyan uprising. The claims and choreographed displays of control shed little light on the balance of power.

March 01, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi and David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Mourners lower a victim of the Libyan uprising into his grave at a cemetery in Benghazi, the nation's second-largest city.
Mourners lower a victim of the Libyan uprising into his grave at a cemetery… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya — Embattled Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi marshaled cheering supporters and convoys of trucks said to be headed for rebel territory. His foes boasted of sending 500 men down the coastal highway for a showdown in Tripoli, the capital.

Little of the conflicting claims and choreographed displays of control shed light on the true balance of power in the latest Middle Eastern uprising against autocratic rule.

The Kadafi government's show of strength in and around Tripoli on Tuesday was for the benefit of foreign journalists on official tours of the capital, where the once seemingly invincible leader has hunkered down with loyalists and vowed to defeat the fierce challenge to his 41-year rule.

"I need Moammar Kadafi," said Abdul Salaam Abu Saifi, a 21-year-old student, as cars filled with supporters in the suburb of Qasr ben Ghashir honked horns and passengers pumped their fists in the air. "Those who say life is bad here are liars."

As Kadafi lieutenants cast a picture of calm and normality in areas still under the regime's control, opponents in the rebel-held east claimed that they had gained ground in several coastal cities and that they had repulsed government forces trying to take back at least three strategic venues that fell last week.

Even in the government-held towns around the capital where regime supporters took visiting journalists, frightened opponents whispered words of dissent when government minders were out of earshot, and the official pronouncements often had a hollow ring.

It was unimaginable, for instance, that the trucks reportedly headed to the eastern city of Benghazi with relief supplies could break through the rebel roadblocks along the huge stretches of coastal roadway. It was likewise impossible to verify rebel claims that they have organized an imminent surge toward Tripoli for final confrontation with Kadafi's forces.

About 500 young fighters, itching to join what they expect to be the final drive to topple Kadafi and take Tripoli, headed west, braving dangerous desert crossings to skirt the last government strongholds, rebel commanders in Benghazi reported.

As Kadafi foes and supporters weathered the tense impasse around Tripoli in the second week of the rebellion, the international community stepped up pressure on the defiant strongman with renewed calls for him to step down and for sanctions to punish his bloody crackdown.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned of the risk of protracted civil war in Libya but indicated that the Obama administration would approach any military action cautiously to avoid perceptions that the United States wants to "invade for oil." The White House is also aware of the Libyan rebels' desire to oust Kadafi without foreign help, she said.

In comments to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Clinton suggested that the administration is likely to continue to exercise restraint, even though officials have said military moves are under consideration.

Two U.S. amphibious assault ships were headed for the Mediterranean, as were 400 Marines, moves intended to keep U.S. forces poised to respond to any situation, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said.

"We are looking at a lot of options and contingencies," Gates said, noting that no actions have been authorized by the United Nations or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and that military strategists were discussing with President Obama the widest possible range of potential responses.

At United Nations headquarters in New York, the General Assembly suspended Libya from the U.N. Human Rights Council in a voice vote, heeding a recommendation by the council Friday to sanction Kadafi for using force against his people.

A U.N. spokesman also confirmed reports that Kadafi has taken steps to replace Libyan diplomats who have broken with him. The deputy U.N. ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told journalists that Tripoli was maneuvering to send envoys still loyal to Kadafi. Spokesman Martin Nesirky would say only that "the correspondence was being studied."

In Tripoli and the surrounding towns still loyal to Kadafi, regime supporters described reports of an emerging rebel enclave in the country's eastern half as a U.S. or British intelligence plot. They denied that the insurgency is part of a fever-like spread of democracy demands sweeping the Arab world from Morocco to Yemen.

"Tunisia is a miserable life. Egypt is a miserable life," said Ali Saleh, a 50-year-old businessman. "Here, everyone has a salary. In Libya, we have no reason to make a revolution. In Libya, all people are rich."

Many observers, including those either silent or unenthusiastic about the government, said the insecurity and fear stirred by fighting last week had calmed considerably in the last few days.

"For one or two days it was very bad," said Talal Arab, a doctor at the Green Hospital, where journalists were taken on an escorted visit. "But now everything is back to normal."

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