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Many rural Libyans look to Kadafi

Libya leader Moammar Kadafi's populist largess doled out disproportionately to rural people has won the loyalty of large swaths of citizens. And the countryside shows the signs of his attention to it.

March 23, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Bani Walid, Libya — The gift for his family's loyalty, service and sacrifice was an AK-47 assault rifle.

Seventeen-year-old Abubakr Issa brandished the weapon with pride in the courtyard of his family's home in Bani Walid, a small tribal town about 100 miles southeast of Tripoli, the capital. Three days earlier his 37-year-old brother Fatih, a career infantryman in the Libyan armed forces, had died during an airstrike near Benghazi.

"I was happy to learn my brother died because he is now a martyr," the young man said Wednesday as a multinational coalition's aircraft and missiles pounded Libyan military targets for a fifth day. "I also want to go to the front."

Photos: A meeting with prisoners held by rebels in Libya

Abubakr is among the large number of rural Libyans who remain loyal to leader Moammar Kadafi even as many educated, middle-class Libyans despise him for turning the country into an international pariah and imposing his crude cult of personality on a people proud of their ancient roots. Those who oppose Kadafi support the United Nations-authorized, Western-led military intervention as a possible way to push him from power.

But with populist largess doled out disproportionately to rural people in districts like Bani Walid, Kadafi has managed to win the loyalty of large swaths of citizens.

Libya's countryside, especially in the west, appeared to have fared better than rural stretches of other Arab countries. Hamlets boasted recently built clinics and schools. Many people drove late-model Asian sedans or pickups.

"The majority support Kadafi because he works hard and he supports people who work hard and he's against those who support colonialism," Mansour Khalaf, a tribal elder attending Fatih's funeral, told a group of reporters visiting Bani Walid.

Golden dandelions and violet wildflowers bloomed on idyllic grasslands where sheep grazed. Palm trees, willows, cactus groves and neatly arranged orchards lined the roadway. Satellite dishes topped modest single-family homes.

"Libya has the same administrative capabilities as the West," said Salem Ahmed, 48, a businessman in Bani Walid.

Military checkpoints lined the rural highway between the capital and Bani Walid in the interior. Soldiers stood alongside antiaircraft guns mounted on brown Toyota pickups and aimed at the sky, and at government buildings. Loyal military families with strong ties to the regime have been handed weapons to wield against Kadafi opponents.

"They gave each family a gun," Abubakr said. "Moammar is helping us protect our homes from the terrorists."

Despite such pro-Kadafi sentiment, some Bani Walid residents criticized conditions under the regime. In the early days of the uprising against Kadafi, the town temporarily fell under the control of opposition supporters who spray-painted "Kill Kadafi" on walls, though the graffiti have since been painted over.

One young man Wednesday whispered that a crowd of pro-government protesters gathered at the central square represented no more than 5% of the town's population.

"Things are not good here," said Tarek, a twentysomething unemployed man with a degree in geography. "You cannot get a job unless you have wasta," Arabic for influence or connections.

Photos: A meeting with prisoners held by rebels in Libya

daragahi@latimes.com

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