Rebels celebrate repelling pro-Kadafi forces in Port Brega, Libya, on… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — The new recruit has a middle-aged paunch and a silver beard.
With eastern Libya in full-scale rebellion, grocer Adel Sanfaz is suddenly a soldier at age 45, one of thousands of untrained men, young and old, who have rushed to recruiting centers eager to fight Moammar Kadafi's forces.
Dozens of chanting young men raced past Sanfaz at a barracks here Wednesday, piling into taxis and private cars to help repel an attack by government forces on a key oil complex and airfield about 100 miles to the south. Some did not even carry weapons.
"We aren't a properly equipped army, but we have plenty of willing men," Sanfaz said as carloads of volunteers sped past him. "We aren't trained, but we know how to use guerrilla tactics."
No organized military force has yet emerged from the impassioned young protesters and defecting government soldiers who seized Benghazi and eastern Libya from Kadafi last month, and it's not clear that one will. But Kadafi's army isn't exactly a crack force, either, and the ragtag groups of rebel fighters have proved surprisingly effective so far in defending their gains.
Rebel commanders concede that their fighters are not ready to defeat Kadafi in Tripoli or even drive his supporters from their redoubt in the coastal city of Surt, along the 600-mile highway between the capital and Benghazi. Many of the pro-Kadafi fighters who attacked the oil complex Wednesday were believed to have come from in or near Surt.
"It's a militia of ordinary people versus a very ruthless regime," said Idris Laga, a member of the rebel military council formed Monday. "Our people are very excited about fighting for their freedom, but we have to get organized first; everybody is acting on their own."
If nothing else, the rebel fighters seem more motivated than pro-government forces, which include mercenaries. In fact, officials here say some volunteers have jumped into private cars and taxis to venture out and help the rebels who control Misurata, a coastal city near Tripoli, or even the capital itself.
"We don't encourage people to rush off on their own, but we can't control them," said Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition leader in Benghazi.
Many opposition leaders say they don't fully trust the former government troops or special forces soldiers who abandoned Kadafi. But they have put the soldiers to work training ordinary citizens, and have built stockpiles of small arms and ammunition seized from armories and barracks.
Kadafi, fearing a coup, kept his regular army untrained and poorly equipped, particularly in eastern Libya, which long has been a center of opposition. He lavished money and weapons on special forces troops and mercenaries to buy their loyalty.
Before the rebellion, some Western military analysts estimated that the Libyan army had 45,000 soldiers, plus 40,000 of Kadafi's Revolutionary Guard troops and 40,000 People's Militia reserves.
It is unclear how many soldiers have joined the revolt. There have been several reports of pilots refusing to bomb targets in eastern Libya or switching sides.
Analysts say Kadafi's military has Russian-made battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, attack helicopters and warplanes, but much of its arsenal is made up of aging, low-tech equipment. In contrast, the so-called Khamis Brigade, commanded by one of Kadafi's sons and assigned to protect the regime, has newer and better equipment, including tanks and rocket launchers.
Rebel leaders will not divulge their strength beyond claiming thousands of fighters.
"We count on the courage and enthusiasm of our volunteers, who can succeed with just a Kalashnikov or even a knife," said Mutaz Mughrati, who directs a recruiting center in Benghazi. "We don't need the army, just their weapons."
Col. Atia Abaidy, a commander at an army barracks here, said the rebels have antiaircraft missiles, 106-millimeter recoilless rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles, but not enough weapons to supply each of the thousands of volunteers.
Two Russian-made attack helicopters are parked at the Benghazi military airport, flown here by defecting pilots. Two warships are docked at the port, their defecting crews still in Benghazi.
The rebels also claim to have at least two jet fighters and an unknown number of outmoded Russian-made tanks. Old-style, hand-cranked antiaircraft guns seem to be everywhere. One dilapidated model has been left on the street for children to play on.
The aircraft, tanks and ships are older models that lack spare parts and ammunition, rebel leaders concede. Even so, they say they are confident.
"We can easily defend Benghazi," Abaidy said, "and we can keep Kadafi from entering anywhere in eastern Libya."