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Kadafi's propaganda machine harps on civilian casualties from airstrikes

Libyan officials allege that more than 100 civilians have been killed in airstrikes, but few credible details are provided. The effort is part of Moammar Kadafi's strategy combining propaganda with aggressive fighting.

March 25, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • Youths drag an image of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi through the streets of Benghazi. the rebels' de facto capital.
Youths drag an image of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi through the streets… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Tajoura, Libya — The stories about the lone civilian injured in a coalition airstrike didn't quite match. A man who claimed to be her father, Rajab Mohammad, said she was 18, and injured when she fell on her back after an errant bomb landed on the family farm.

A man who claimed to be her brother said she was struck by shrapnel. A man who claimed to be the gardener said the hospitalized victim was an 8-year-old boy. The holes in the wall looked more like they were caused by small-arms fire than bomb fragments.

But for the purposes of Moammar Kadafi and his fervent supporters the details didn't really matter. The footage of Mohammad's children and the damaged farm 20 miles west of Tripoli were distributed worldwide and broadcast with the caption "civilian casualties."

Photos: "A kumbaya moment" with Libyan rebels

Faced with an internal rebellion and outside military intervention, Kadafi has developed a survival strategy combining propaganda with battlefield tactics aimed at holding off rebels in the east while tightening his grip on the country's west.

One key element is to highlight the damage the Western "crusader aggressor" is inflicting on civilians of a Muslim nation, even when it isn't.

Despite widespread questions about the goals of the U.N.-backed military campaign, it was far from clear the strategy could work. The coalition is picking up support, including in the Muslim world, where Kadafi is focusing his campaign to influence public opinion. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar say they will provide aircraft for the no-fly campaign. Turkey, Kuwait and Jordan will provide other forms of assistance.

Unlike U.S.-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the campaign in Libya has aroused few passions in the region. Whereas Saddam Hussein was heralded as a hero by many for his defiance of the West, Kadafi is almost universally despised in the Arab world as a tyrant. That is more true now when a pro-democracy mood has gripped the region's streets.

Even some longtime critics of Western foreign policy believe Kadafi is getting his comeuppance.

"The Libyan people were not in a position to change the regime democratically or peacefully like the Tunisians and Egyptians," wrote Abdullah Bilqaziz in the leftist Lebanese daily, Safir. "Therefore, the only option that was left for the people was to carry arms against him to liberate their country and fate step by step, house by house, lane by lane until victory is achieved."

Libyan officials seeking to lift the morale of Kadafi's supporters and sap the will of the international coalition apparently believe that regardless of whether foreign journalists believe their claims about civilian casualties, the images themselves will have an impact.

"We think the foreign aggression is losing pace internationally," government spokesman Musa Ibrahim said in an interview. "Our moral position is getting stronger and stronger. We hope this will convince decent people in the West and among the rebels that what they're doing is wrong, violent and aggressive and they're losing any moral high ground they thought they had."

A Health Ministry official told reporters Friday that 114 Libyans had died and 445 had been injured nationwide in a week of bombing raids, but said the number did not distinguish between soldiers and civilians.

Kadafi seems determined to press forward using tools that the West won't be able to neutralize without a ground invasion or an out-and-out attack on Libyan infrastructure.

On a short trip to Tajoura on Friday to view scenes of alleged civilian damage and casualties, a group of men were seen being hauled from their cars and searched. Near a mosque that has been the site of boisterous anti-government rallies on Friday afternoons, twitchy men in leather jackets and sunglasses, wielding assault rifles, were blocking the streets.

On the battlefield, Kadafi's forces have fought ferociously to strengthen their grip on the west, deploying shock troops from various military branches to keep a lid on dissent.

After their planes were grounded and their armor and heavy artillery destroyed in coalition airstrikes, Kadafi's troops entered Misurata, Libya's third-largest city, on foot. They took up positions on centrally located Tripoli Street, and opened fire with small arms and mortars. They are taking an equally hard line in the town of Zintan along the Tunisian border.

"People are living, they are surviving, but just barely," Mohammad Daraat, a Misurata businessman and opposition activist, said in an interview conducted via a satellite Internet connection. "I don't how we can handle this much longer. We are running out of everything: food, medicine, water."

That strategy worked for Kadafi's forces in the rebel-held cities of Zawiya and Zuwarah, west of the capital.

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