By Michael Georgy
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Western bombardment may be weakening Muammar Gaddafi's air defense systems but it has not helped Libyans overcome fear of his security agencies on the ground.
Nowhere is that reality more palpable than in Tajoura, a district of the capital and Gaddafi stronghold Tripoli where hundreds of people had dared to hold anti-government protests after an uprising began on February 17.
As Western powers launch air and missile strikes to protect civilians caught up in the Libyan leader's crackdown against rebels, there were no signs on Friday that residents of the working class area were emboldened to step up their defiance.
Just a few Fridays ago after prayers, hundreds of Libyans gathered outside a Tajoura mosque and chanted anti-Gaddafi slogans, vowing to bring him down.
Even activists who had previously been arrested or were on the run showed up and took part. The change in mood is striking.
Two men standing near the mosque said state security agencies and pro-Gaddafi militiamen had been tightening their grip on the area and residents were too terrified to protest.
"People are very scared these days. They are watching from everywhere. Even from the rooftops," said one of the men, who asked not to be named as the other looked around nervously.
As they spoke, shots could be heard in the distance and open-back trucks -- the vehicles of choice for Gaddafi's militias -- cruised through abandoned streets.
"Last Friday 200 of them came to the mosque and prayed with us. They were armed, they intimidated us. They told us to stop protesting."
The two men, and many others, are familiar with the stakes. Some of their relatives and friends -- inspired by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia -- have been detained for protesting.
"They tell people that they will release their relatives if they don't protest after Friday prayers. That's why things have quietened down in Tajoura," said one of the men.
Libyan officials deny using arrests to silence protests. They say only armed gangs and people linked to al Qaeda are arrested.
But his opponents say fear has been a very effective tool for Gaddafi, who has survived coup attempts and assassination plots during 41 years of rule.
At a Tajoura coffee shop, only one man was willing to discuss what was happening in Libya. He said what government agents would like to hear most -- that al Qaeda and Western imperialists are behind Libya's unrest and no political change was needed.
"There were no protests in Tajoura before. These were people who were influenced by al Qaeda," said Hamza al Hader. "We must fight back against the West. I am ready to be a suicide bomber."
Along Tajoura's main street, two bearded men at another mosque confirmed what the others said. "They (state security) are all over the place," one said.
Minutes later a plainclothes state security agent with a pistol and others in irregular military uniforms swarmed around a government minder and two reporters he was accompanying. Soon six vehicles, including a police wagon, were on hand.
After the minder was questioned for 40 minutes, one of the security men said that the area was dangerous for foreigners because armed gangs and al Qaeda were a security threat.
Gaddafi has said he will arm all Libyans so that the north African oil exporter could defeat what he calls a colonialist crusader aggression and al Qaeda.
Libyan officials say Western air strikes and cruise missile attacks have killed about 100 civilians, as well as soldiers. Some strikes have taken place in Tajoura, where a military base is located.
In another part of Tajoura, people streamed out of a mosque after praying for the souls of two relatives they said were killed by a Western air strike at a nearby military barracks.
Asked if he was worried about Libya's future, one of the mourners said: "We are scared to tell the truth. My heart is heavy. I am too scared to tell the truth."