The fight for Libya

The New York Times reports:

Near midnight, in the darkness of the deliberately unlit Misurata harbor, the tugboat’s crew loosened its lines from the pier and pulled them aboard.

The helmsman engaged Al Iradah 6’s dual engines and it spun into the basin, gathered speed and headed for the gap in the jetties. A few miles beyond, outside the range of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s artillery, was the safety of the open sea.

There, the helmsman turned the round bow eastward, toward Benghazi, the Libyan rebel capital about 300 miles away. The latest leg for an unlikely smuggling vessel was complete. In a little more than 24 hours, Al Iradah 6 would reach rebel-controlled territory and line up for a fresh cargo of medicine, food and guns — fuel for a city besieged.

There have been many reasons for the rebels’ success in Misurata, where they recently drove the Qaddafi forces out of the city and seized the airport. One of them is this: a determined and surreptitious sealift by a small fleet of Libyan boats.

Combining the talents of those who procure a city’s wartime needs with those of merchant mariners and fishermen, rebels have organized about two dozen fishing vessels and former Qaddafi-controlled tugboats into an impromptu fleet that has provided Misurata with a lifeline of supplies. The fleet sails with NATO’s approval and support. (Rebels and organizers in both Benghazi and Misurata spoke openly of the smuggling effort, but asked that certain locations and shipping schedules not be disclosed.)

At a basic level, it has assumed missions of both mercy and war. The mixed cargo — baby formula and medicine beside crates of ammunition — has helped civilians survive and equipped Misurata for its fight.

The strategic significance of Misurata has not been lost on the crew of Al Iradah 6. For months, rebels trapped in the city, 130 miles from Tripoli, provided Libya’s opposition movement with a powerful argument against any discussion of the war’s end that called for national partition.

As long as Misurata’s armed men held on to their city, the nation’s third largest, the Qaddafi government could never credibly say that the war was a contest between east and west, and propose that the country, divided by history and tribal allegiances, be split.

Reuters reports:

The rebels said it would be easy: roll in, block the road, raise the flag — another village under their writ in Libya’s Western Mountains.

The villagers are with us, the rebels said of their fellow Berbers — an ethnic minority that rose up against Muammar Gaddafi at the very start of the rebellion in February.

“Only a few support Gaddafi, maybe five or six,” said Omar, commander of the rebel unit from the nearby town of Kabaw.

His call-sign was Rambo. But the operation, which began on Sunday afternoon with the rebels gathering over coffee at a roadside cafe, ended an hour later in angry confrontation, tense retreat and a lesson in the divided loyalties and half-truths of this particular theatre of Libya’s conflict.

“Only seven or eight people here don’t like Gaddafi,” Mohammed, a resident of Tamzin, quietly told a reporter.

The truth probably lay somewhere in the middle, like Tamzin itself and dozens of other towns and villages wedged between the rebels who hold most of the plateau and forces loyal to Gaddafi mainly in the desert plains.

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