Rebels divided over what would replace Gadhafi

AP News
|
Posted: Mar 30, 2011 2:43 PM
Rebels divided over what would replace Gadhafi

The hundreds of men who come daily to this town's seized army base for lessons in shooting rifles, loading rocket launchers and firing artillery shells agree on at least two things: Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi must go and arms are the only way to get him out.

Beyond that, their visions of Libya should Gadhafi's 42-year reign end differ widely. Some want democracy. Others want a share of Libya's oil wealth. Still others, albeit a minority, see Libya's liberation as the first step toward establishing a regional Islamic state. That's bound to scare the international coalition bombing Gadhafi's forces.

The United States has already reached out to the opposition's political leadership. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with members of the Interim National Council on Tuesday in London.

The former U.S. Ambassador to Tripoli, Chris Stevens, is due to visit Benghazi soon, and President Barack Obama has not ruled out the possibility of arming rebel forces.

The interim council _ largely stocked with foreign-educated, Westernized Libyans _ insists it seeks a liberal democracy based on a constitution and with regular elections.

But interviews with over a dozen men receiving weapons training at a former Benghazi military camp provide a window into the diverse motivations pulling rebel ground troops into battle.

A few hundred show up daily at this base on the city's western edge, which rebels seized at the start of the uprising in mid-February and promptly renamed "The Martyrs' Brigade."

Training is run by a group of retired army officers, most in their 50s, who seek to provide bakers, bureaucrats, university students and taxi drivers with basic weapons know-how.

On a recent day, a toothless soldier showed one group how to aim a Kalashnikov, while another helped a father-son team assemble the barrel of an anti-aircraft gun.

All detailed reasons to hate Gadhafi's regime.

Ashraf Mohammed, a government bureaucrat, said he'd seen too many people abused by Gadhafi's rule. His brother was detained for seven months for being seen with the wrong people, he said. A neighbor spent seven years in prison, and a colleague did 17 before being released with no explanation, he said.

"All the accusations were political," said Mohammed, 31. "Any accusation that you are against the regime and it's over."

Next he explained which buttons to push to fire a rocket launcher in what he considers a fight for freedom.

"The goal is democracy, a constitution and transfer of power," he said. "Not just one ruling family."

University student Abdel-Salam Rigayi, 23, took advantage of a vacation _ imposed by the fighting _ to pursue a different dream.

"We want a society based on the Quran," he said, speaking in the formal Arabic tones of a mosque preacher.

"Freedom of religion, we don't want it," he said. "We want the freedom to practice our religion, but we don't want freedom for Jews and Christians and to have naked women and alcohol."

His friend, Mahdi Abu Bakir, 35, wore a bushy beard and a long white robe.

"We want to get rid of that evil thief," he said, meaning Gadhafi, "then unite the Arabs under the motto, There is no God but Allah" _ the Muslim declaration of faith.

The camp's trainers insisted the program was going well, though they acknowledge the inferiority of their arms _ mostly munitions seized from long-neglected army bases or retreating regime forces.

"We lack weapons, while Gadhafi's troops have modern, strong weapons," said Fawzi Abdullah Moussa, who retired from the Libyan army in 1998 after a 30-year career. "But we have determination and belief to push us forward."

The camp reflects the disorganization among rebel forces. Anyone who enters gets training without any physical, medical or ideological screening. No one checks their identities, and few names are recorded.

Trainers said they sent fighters to the front, but all gave different answers on when the last group left and how large it was. No one could explain how they communicate with the front in a facility with no electricity and no radios. They even disagreed on whether an "operations room" exists to coordinate the fight.

Some worry extremists will exploit the chaos.

NATO's top commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, told Congress Tuesday that officials had seen "flickers" of possible al-Qaida and Hezbollah involvement with rebel forces. But he said there was no evidence of significant numbers within the opposition leadership.

Spokesman Mustafa Gheriani of the opposition council in Benghazi said that any extremists among the fighters are exceptions and that ensuring democracy is the only way to combat them.

"Once you have a democracy and a constitution, there is nothing for the West to fear," he said. "Democracy generally puts down all of these extremist elements. Our best bet is a democracy."

But the council has no control over who is picking up guns to join the fight.

While some at the training camp talked of the importance of Arab unity or the role of Islam in their society, none mentioned al-Qaida or any other terror or militant group. Most focused merely on hatred of Gadhafi.

On an oil-stained blanket, Karim Mahmoud, 48, and his 15-year old son struggled to assemble an anti-aircraft gun. Another son, 11, watched closely.

Mahmoud, a baker, said Gadhafi's brutality pushed him _ despite diabetes, high blood pressure and heart troubles _ to seek arms with his sons.

"We lived under oppression for a long time, but we put up with it," he said. "But when the regime killed our friends and brothers, we had to join the defense. The regime forced us to fight against it."

A handful of others obviously under 18 were scattered among the hundreds of trainees. One trainer even pointed out his 10-year-old son sitting among a group being taught to use a rifle.

Mahmoud dismissed concerns that his sons were too young to fight.

"I'm ready to send them tomorrow to defend the nation," he said. "If they die, it will be in the path of God and I'll see them in heaven."

His son, Abdel-Rahman, 15, didn't look like a fighter in a black baseball cap and a fake leather jacket, with a downy mustache just emerging on his lip. He claimed otherwise.

"I hope to go and die a martyr," he said. "I'm not too young."