On the ground in Libya: Rebels with a cause, but little else

BENGHAZI, Libya — Rebel fighters who once vowed to seize Tripoli from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi instead have retreated from their forward positions to defend their homes, saying their rebel council isn’t leading them, they don’t trust their military commanders and their army is divided.

Days of interviews throughout Libya’s rebel-dominated eastern half provide a grim picture of the group whose side the United States and its coalition partners have taken in a fight whose goal, if unstated, is to drive Gadhafi from power after 42 years. The rebels hardly seem ready to take the lead.
Rather than strive to win the war and take back cities lost to Gadhafi over the last 10 days, rebel fighters say they simply want to defend their homes, figure out who’s friend or foe, and regroup.
Hopes of a new constitutional, democratic Libya that drove the rebellion a month ago appear moribund, dashed by the ease with which Gadhafi forces entered this city a week ago. Residents here openly acknowledge that Gadhafi loyalists would have taken the city had French aircraft not bombed loyalist tanks.
The realization that they could have been so quickly overwhelmed has forced the rebels to confront the weaknesses of the council that claims to be their government and of the rebel fighting force itself. Perhaps most unnerving was the discovery that hundreds, if not thousands, of Gadhafi sympathizers were among them.
During the loyalist attack, rebels here say, men in civilian clothes came out of their Benghazi homes and attacked the city along with Gadhafi forces charging in from the south. Rebels said they suspect other infiltrators have spied on them from the frontline.
“We don’t have an army,” said Lt. Saleh Ibrahim, a former restaurateur who is now supposed to be a rebel commander. “We have been betrayed by infiltrators on the frontline. And when Benghazi came under attack, our government fled to Egypt. We are not safe here. For me, at least I will defend my family.”
In Egypt and Tunisia, where popular protests forced the resignation of longtime leaders, the military that assumed power had been a key part of the governing structure, That’s not true in Libya, where everything has hinged on Gadhafi for decades.
Opponents inside the country were arrested or worse, and those who fled the country have never coalesced into a firm opposition group.
The result is apparent in the east, where anti-Gadhafi forces lack organization and structure.
Elder statesmen are now in charge of a movement that was initially driven by angry youth, and they’re still figuring out how to govern. They face not only international uncertainty about who they are, but domestic pressures as well.
On the front lines in the city of Ajdabiya, the last major city before Benghazi, the few remaining rebels are poorly armed, some with no more than knives, and without any leader. Most rebels that were there have returned to Benghazi to set up neighborhood watch groups, using the last of their remaining weapons.
At the 7th of April Army base here, a major rebel army headquarters, Ibrahim, 57, says any appearance of organization is illusory. He said he’s too embarrassed to invite reporters inside because, he said, he doesn’t want the world to see “all the rubbish we have.”
A tank leaving the base isn’t on its way to war, he said, but to pull a civilian car from a ravine. A rusted tank returning will be pillaged for parts.
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