Austin Bay

For almost seven weeks, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's loyalists and mercenary soldiers have besieged the city of Misrata. Rebel fighters and Misrata's citizenry have suffered brutal assault after assault, but with the aid of NATO and coalition air power, they have denied Gadhafi's regime a key military and political goal: complete control of western Libya's coastal cities and towns.

Reports began to circulate on April 25 that Gadhafi's forces, after a bloody fight in a key neighborhood, had retreated to the outskirts of Misrata. The city, however, remains surrounded.

Gadhafi hasn't quit the battle, and the truth is, he can't afford to quit. Located about 130 miles east of Tripoli on the road to Sirte, Misrata is an island of rebel resistance lying deep within territory Gadhafi's regime must secure if it is to survive politically.

That's because Gadhafi is now fighting a war to retain control of western Libya, also known as Tripolitania. Libyans understand the importance of Misrata. Agence France-Presse quoted Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a spokesman for the Libyan rebel Transitional National Council, as saying: "Misrata is the key to Tripoli. If he (Gadhafi) lets go of Misrata, he will let go of Tripoli. He is not crazy enough to do that."

For a little over two millennia, the classical Roman provincial designations of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica have lingered as popular names for Libya's western and eastern regions. Numerous commentators have suggested that Libya's civil war will stalemate and end with a 21st century resurrection of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Gadhafi would retain a rump state in the west, and the rebels would make Benghazi the capital of a New Cyrenaica.

However, the revolt against Gadhafi pits oppressed outsiders against privileged regime insiders. Misrata demonstrates that the war isn't a matter of east-west geography and a neat two-way division. So does continued resistance in the Nafusa Mountains south and west of Gadhafi's stronghold of Tripoli.

The Nafusa range is a desert escarpment and a predominantly ethnic Berber region. With a few exceptions, for four decades the Berbers have received short economic and cultural shrift from Gadhafi.

Early on, Gadhafi understood the Berbers presented a geographic threat and ethnic challenge. Regime forces began attacking the Berbers in late February. In mid-April, Berber rebels seized the Libya-Tunisia border crossing between Wazin, Libya, and Dehiba, Tunisia. This opened a supply line to Tunisia. NATO aircraft are now providing air support to the Berbers. Gadhafi's attempts to secure his southern desert flank, by bribes, harassment and outright attack, have been stymied.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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