Gadhafi heartland digs in against revolution

AP News
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Posted: Sep 14, 2011 1:31 PM
Gadhafi heartland digs in against revolution

The revolution's quest to unite Libya under its control has a formidable challenge standing in the way: A swath of territory where disciplined loyalists fighters stage precision attacks and withering shelling barrages to defend land that includes Moammar Gadhafi's hometown.

It's far too early to predict whether the pro-Gadhafi heartland _ wedged between the former rebel hub of Benghazi and the capital Tripoli _ could turn into a seat of resistance such as insurgent zones in Iraq or Afghanistan. But, for the moment, it carries the same interplay of firepower and zealotry, fueling attacks that have killed at least 80 anti-Gadhafi forces in recent days.

"Its cities are packed with weapons, missiles and ammunition depots," said Fadl-Allah Haroun, a commander of revolutionary units near Benghazi. "It is an unbelievable force."

Currently, former rebel fighters are assembling for an expected push into the well-defended loyalist stronghold of Bani Walid, on the western end of the 240-mile (400-kilometer) band of pro-Gadhafi territory. It includes the hunted leader's Mediterranean birthplace Sirte and stretches to near the oil port of Ras Lanouf _ which came under back-to-back attacks by loyalist forces on Monday that killed 15 guards.

The stiff resistance in Bani Walid, including by highly trained snipers, offers a glimpse of possibly much bigger fights ahead to try to dislodge Sirte and other places from loyalist hands.

Cities and towns throughout the Gadhafi belt are apparently awash with arms _ with larger weapons such as 152mm Howitzer canons now well hidden against NATO airstrikes that continue in the area, revolutionary commanders told The Associated Press. The pro-Gadhafi commandos also stage hit-and-run strikes from the desert to the south, suggesting that Libya's vast hinterlands and distant loyalist hubs such as Sabha could become rallying points for resistance fighters.

Outside Wadi Al-Hammar, a village on the coastal road about 55 miles (90 kilometers) east of Sirte, anti-Gadhafi forces have found armored vehicles hidden under tents and other weapons stashed in encampments of nomadic Bedouin tribesmen.

Al-Tayab Said, a revolutionary commander from Sabha, said loyalist fighters are trying to regroup and are using desert supply lines from Algeria.

"They are moving freely across the border," he said. "They get constant supply."

Other anti-Gadhafi leaders have noted the superior fighting tactics of the highly trained loyalists units compared with the civilian-heavy revolutionary brigades.

A battlefield report about a Mitsubishi pickup is now making the rounds as a cautionary tale.

On Saturday, pro-Gadhafi forces left the vehicle _ loaded with ammunition _ in a conspicuous hilltop in Wadi Al-Hammar. Revolutionary fighters rushed to claim the prize, but were picked off by hidden marksmen. At least 35 deaths were counted before the group managed to retreat to safety.

Dr. Ahmed Alsharif, who heads a field hospital in Nawfaliyah, said at least 80 anti-Gadhafi fighters have been killed since Saturday in or around the loyalist territory.

Ideology also is a power weapon. The loyalist resistance is believed overseen by members of Gadhafi's "Revolutionary Committees," which were founded in the 1970s as the eyes and ears _ and muscle _ of the regime on university campuses and other sites. In 1976, Gadhafi made a speech to students saying that if dissidents "want peace, they will have peace. But if they want blood, let it be bloody."

In Umm Kunfis, a town about 60 miles (100 kilometers) east of Sirte, school papers suggested the high school curriculum was changed after the uprising began in February to demonize the regime opponents. One exercise asked students to write an essay praising a Gadhafi speech that called his critics "rats." In religion class, students were asked to explain why the anti-Gadhafi factions were not Muslims and why it is proper to kill them.