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Libyan rebels' ragtag army left in disarray

All that stands between Kadafi and opposition headquarters in Benghazi are disorganized volunteers and army defectors spread thinly along the coastal highway.

March 13, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Unarmed rebel fighers watch a government airplane flies over their position in the desert near Ras Lanuf.
Unarmed rebel fighers watch a government airplane flies over their position… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Ajdabiya — Nabil Mustafa Kharraz rushed to the front without a weapon. He ended up in a grimy provincial hospital with rocket shrapnel in his brain and a bloodied bandage wrapped around his head like a turban.

"He's a brave boy," said his father, Mustafa Kharraz, standing at his son's bedside and holding a tube containing dark shards of metal a doctor had plucked from the 20-year-old's head. "I'm proud he did his duty for his country."

In his rumpled bed a day after fleeing a withering assault by government forces in the oil city of Ras Lanuf, Nabil promised his father that he would fight again, though he still doesn't know how to fire a gun.

Armed only with intense devotion to the revolution in eastern Libya, the chemical engineering student epitomizes the madly courageous but wildly incompetent rebel force that has taken on canny strongman Moammar Kadafi. Made up of students and clerks and accountants, the "people's army" has proved supremely vulnerable and, in some cases, helpless.

The idealistic protesters-turned-soldiers grew overconfident and inattentive after two swift triumphs. Then they retreated in chaos when Kadafi unleashed his professional army and its punishing heavy weapons and warplanes.

That resurgent army is now relentlessly pushing eastward, scattering the outgunned rebels. All that stands between Kadafi and rebel headquarters in Benghazi are disorganized volunteers and army defectors spread thinly along the coastal highway.

Not a single heavy-gun emplacement is dug in along the 140-mile desert highway from the rebels' new defensive line in Port Brega to Benghazi. And all that protects Port Brega, a strategic oil hub, are the same outdated weapons that proved so ineffective in Ras Lanuf.

At a rebel checkpoint about 25 miles east of Ras Lanuf late Saturday, fighters flung themselves into the desert each time a government warplane passed overhead. Gun trucks ferrying rebel reinforcements, many unarmed, sped west to the front, passing ambulances, with blue lights flashing, headed in the opposite direction.

It is an asymmetrical fight. The rebels can muster only ancient hand-cranked antiaircraft guns, heavy machine-guns, recoilless rifles, rockets, grenade launchers and assault rifles.

The pro-Kadafi forces fight with what the military calls "stand-off" weapons. From a distance, they pummel the rebels with airstrikes, artillery, tanks and, according to rebel fighters and opposition leaders, guns aboard ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

"I never saw them with my own eyes," Ibrahim Sharf, 35, whose left leg was shattered by a rocket barrage, said of Kadafi's troops. His leg, clumsily wrapped in gauze that oozed blood, was held together by four metal pins.

"If they would only fight us man to man, we'd destroy them," Sharf said, grimacing in his hospital bed. He spotted an image of Kadafi on a hospital TV and made a brushing motion, as if swatting a fly.

The rebels, who fight from pickup trucks and cars with "People's Army of Libya" spray-painted on them, have only three or four days' cushion of gasoline supplies, said Khaled Ben Ali, a logistics official.

For the first time Saturday, motorists waited in long lines outside gas stations on the coastal highway. Some stations ran dry. The fighting has closed many oil refineries, triggering a fuel shortage in the rebel-held east.

Just one week ago, the rebels were dancing in the streets of Bin Jawwad, a desert outpost west of Ras Lanuf they seized March 5 in what had seemed an inexorable march to Tripoli, the capital. But they have been driven back since, losing at least 60 miles of coastal highway.

Port Brega, 85 miles east of Ras Lanuf, is now in Kadafi's sights. The dictator's son Seif Islam has vowed to reclaim the eastern half of Libya from rebels who have held it since late February.

The Tripoli regime seems confident after battlefield triumphs in the east and in rebellious Zawiya, 30 miles west of the capital. A government-owned cellphone company recently sent a taunting mass text message to subscribers in the east, including many rebel fighters:

"Be happy. We are coming to liberate you soon!"

There is little coherent rebel leadership. At military bases in Benghazi, self-described "colonels" in mismatched military uniforms smoke cigarettes in dilapidated offices, watching the war unfold on Al Jazeera, the satellite news channel.

Special forces soldiers who defected from Kadafi's eastern army are now providing badly needed leadership, opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said. But even as army regulars try to instruct civilian volunteers, the soldiers themselves have little or no combat experience.

Likewise, the businessmen and lawyers directing the rebel national council know little of military affairs. They refer reporters to an array of ever-shifting military spokesmen, few of whom spend any time at the front.

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