The fight for Libya

In a Pentagon briefing, Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, the chief of staff for the operational command, told reporters:

As long as the regime’s forces are fighting in and around cities where the allies have ordered them to back off, he said, coalition attacks would continue. He said the allies are in communication with the Libyan units about what they need to do, where to go and how to arrange their forces to avoid attack, but that there was “no indication” that the regime’s ground forces were following the instructions.

A senior British commander said Wednesday that the allies had effectively destroyed the Libyan air force and air defenses and were now able to operate “with near impunity” across the country, Reuters reported. “We are now applying sustained and unrelenting pressure on the Libyan armed forces,” the commander, Air Vice Marshal Greg Bagwell, said at an airbase in southern Italy where British warplanes are based.

At sea, news reports said six NATO warships had started patrolling off Libya’s coast Wednesday to enforce a United Nations arms embargo, but Germany, which has opposed military intervention in the Libya crisis, said it was withdrawing four of its ships in the Mediterranean from NATO command. To offset the impact of its action on other NATO allies, Germany said it would send 300 more troops to Afghanistan to help operate surveillance aircraft, German officials said.

Colonel Qaddafi himself made a brief but defiant appearance on Libyan television on Tuesday night, appearing at what reporters were told was his Tripoli residence to denounce the bombing raids and pledge victory. “I am here!” he shouted from a balcony to supporters waving green flags. “I am here! I am here!” It was his first known public appearance since the allied bombing began on Saturday.

“We will not surrender,” he told supporters. “We will defeat them by any means. We are ready for the fight, whether it will be a short or a long one. We will be victorious in the end,” he said. “This assault is by a bunch of fascists who will end up in the dustbin of history.”

Time magazine reports:

Khaled al-Sayeh, the rebels’ ostensible military spokesman, insists that rebel forces have captured both the eastern and southern gates to Ajdabiyah, bypassing the regime forces dug in at the northern gate by moving along the coast. They have effectively surrounded Gaddafi’s forces and have even begun to encroach on his stronghold of Sirte. Before long, the loyalist forces will run out of ammunition.

At a press conference on Tuesday evening, without so much as glancing at a sheet of paper, al-Sayeh runs off a long list of impressive achievements. In recent days, he says, rebels and allied air forces have destroyed all but 11 of the 80 tanks Gaddafi had sent to Benghazi. Ten other tanks were captured intact, along with 20 pickup trucks, two armored vehicles and a vehicle with radar equipment. He estimates that between 400 and 600 government troops were killed over the weekend.

But al-Sayeh’s message seems to change from day to day. On Monday, he had been more defensive, insisting that “the army is starting from scratch; we are putting the structure in place.” The army needs training. It needs arms. And the real officers and commanders have no control over the youth gathered at the front line. “The youth advanced today and it was spontaneous, as always. They don’t take orders from anyone,” he said bitterly. “If it was up to the regular military, the advance by the youth today would not have happened.”

I am here to defend Benghazi,” says Muatasim Billah Mohamed, waiting with a crowd of young men on the roadside some 5 km from where the shells are falling. He has gone all the way from Tobruk and has a flag tied around his head like a bandanna, but carries no weapon. God will protect him, he says, pointing to the sky.

Others point to the sky to signify salvation from allied warplanes, expecting to see more wreckage of Gaddafi’s armor. “People now are waiting for the planes to hit Gaddafi’s forces,” explains Ahmed al-Faytoori, a former government bureaucrat, waiting beside his truck on the road. “The revolutionaries cannot proceed without the air strikes because we have very light weapons.”

He has approached the front with a vague intention of fighting Gaddafi, but makes no indication that he plans to move forward into the fray. “There are people here who are prepared to do suicide missions against Gaddafi’s forces, to shake them if the airplanes don’t come,” he says. “But it’s necessary for the planes to come so the rebels can move into Ajdabiyah, and after Ajdabiyah, Ras Lanuf.”

The roar of fighter jets had inspired fear in many of the volunteer fighters and local townspeople along this road less than a week ago. Now it generates excitement. “Air strikes,” a group of young men cheered from a sand dune on Sunday, as explosions to the south sent white clouds of smoke into the air. They turned out to be incoming tank shells, and an older fighter urged them to go down from the dune where he said they were vulnerable.

On Monday, the roar of the warplanes has filled many of those gathered with hope and expectation, but the strikes on Gaddafi’s forces defending the approach to Ajdabiyah never seem to arrive. And as the braver ones press forward into shelling despite their inferior weapons, the war tourists who stay behind get a glimpse of the real horror as well.

Anthony Shadid, Lynsey Addario, Stephen Farrell and Tyler Hicks recount their experience as captives held for several days by Gaddafi forces.

All of us had had close calls over the years. Lynsey was kidnapped in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004; Steve in Afghanistan in 2009. Tyler had more scrapes than he could count, from Chechnya to Sudan, and Anthony was shot in the back in 2002 by a man he believed to be an Israeli soldier. At that moment, though, none of us thought we were going to live. Steve tried to keep eye contact until they pulled the trigger. The rest of us felt the powerlessness of resignation. You feel empty when you know that it’s almost over.

“Shoot them,” a tall soldier said calmly in Arabic.

A colleague next to him shook his head. “You can’t,” he insisted. “They’re Americans.”

They bound our hands and legs instead — with wire, fabric or cable. Lynsey was carried to a Toyota pickup, where she was punched in the face. Steve and Tyler were hit, and Anthony was headbutted.

Even that Tuesday, a pattern had begun to emerge. The beating was always fiercest in the first few minutes, an aggressiveness that Colonel Qaddafi’s bizarre and twisted four decades of rule inculcated in a society that feels disfigured. It didn’t matter that we were bound, or that Lynsey was a woman.

But moments of kindness inevitably emerged, drawing on a culture’s far deeper instinct for hospitality and generosity. A soldier brought Tyler and Anthony, sitting in a pickup, dates and an orange drink. Lynsey had to talk to a soldier’s wife who, in English, called her a donkey and a dog. Then they unbound Lynsey and, sitting in another truck, gave Steve and her something to drink.

From the pickup, Lynsey saw a body outstretched next to our car, one arm outstretched. We still don’t know whether that was Mohammed. We fear it was, though his body has yet to be found.

If he died, we will have to bear the burden for the rest of our lives that an innocent man died because of us, because of wrong choices that we made, for an article that was never worth dying for.

No article is, but we were too blind to admit that.

In a report for The Arabist, Abu Ray writes:

Napoleon famously said an army marches on its stomach, and in the case of Libya’s rebel forces, that would be tuna sandwiches, fava beans and a lot of junk food.

As Western air strikes are restarting once thoroughly defeated rebel advance, the once weirdly successful aspect of their rag tag forces should be gearing up again — their food supply lines.

Like everything else about the uprising in eastern Libya seeking to challenge Moammar Gadhafi’s four decade hammerlock on power, the fighters’ food supply was an ad hoc affair of entreprising individuals and local charities with official sanction that somehow seemed to work — even when nothing else really did.

Rebel checkpoints always featured cases of bottled water, juice, piles of bread and plenty of junk food such as biscuits and packaged cupcakes that fighters can grab and throw into their pick up truck before taking off for the front.

“We never run short of food, we have good kids from Benghazi who come and bring it down to us,” said Mohammed Selim, 23, as he cleaned up the empty boxes of Twinkies, cookies and sugary juice drinks piled outside a rebel checkpoint in the oil refinery town of Ras Lanouf, two weeks ago before they were driven out.

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