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Mistakes costing Libyan rebels

On Saturday, Libyan rebels in jeans and sneakers danced in the streets of Bin Jawwad, celebrating a victory over government forces in the hamlet by firing thousands of rounds of precious ammunition into the air.

By Monday, the unruly gunmen had retreated almost 30 miles and were fighting to hold an important oil complex as Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s aircraft scattered them with strafing runs.

Any momentum rebels may have mustered from two quick battlefield successes was gone. Their premature all-day celebration Saturday, combined with their inexperience and seat-of-the-pants combat, gave Kadafi’s forces an opening to fight back.

The conflict in eastern Libya is a battle between two forces with serious weaknesses.

Supremacy in air power, which opposition leaders are seeking to blunt by asking for a no-fly zone, and other weaponry give Kadafi’s forces an advantage. But they suffer from erratic leadership and the questionable loyalty of some fighters.

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Despite their undisciplined ways, the rebels exhibited remarkable resilience and esprit de corps in seizing two oil complexes last week.

If the rebels don’t act like soldiers, it’s because they aren’t. They’re students, engineers, house painters, deliverymen and accountants. Euphoric over the street uprisings against Kadafi’s 41-year rule last month, they joined a brand-new revolutionary army.

But in this army, nobody wears a helmet. Nobody salutes. Nobody issues orders. Every speeding gun truck and overloaded sedan is actually a little army unto itself.

At one point Saturday, the rebels were poised in Bin Jawwad to attack the coastal city of Surt, home to thousands of heavily armed fighters loyal to Kadafi. But Kadafi unleashed a withering air and land assault Sunday that continued the next day with booming airstrikes near the Ras Lanuf oil complex.

The rebels are now bottled up in Ras Lanuf, frustrated by airstrikes that, according to some reports, also hit Monday deep inside rebel territory in the crossroads town of Bishr, about 65 miles to the east.

It was the rebels’ poorly handled victory in Bin Jawwad that actually left them struggling to mount the attack on pro-Kadafi forces. They still are promising to do it -- once more men and weapons arrive from eastern cities.

A professional fighting force would have cleared Bin Jawwad house by house Saturday to ferret out lingering pro-Kadafi fighters. But the rebels spent the day snapping souvenir photos, waving flags and firing off their weapons. Then they rested.

The next morning, pro-Kadafi fighters launched their assault by firing on the rebels from the cover of houses. They were backed by helicopter gunships and artillery in the kind of coordinated attack the outgunned rebels have yet to attempt.

Nor did the rebels try to win the loyalties of five local tribes whose support has wavered between the rebellion and Kadafi. Instead, they alienated the tribesmen by shooting up their town and terrifying their wives and children.

Forced to retreat to Ras Lanuf, the rebels irritated some supporters in the oil complex by randomly firing weapons day and night.

“It sounds like World War II, but all they’re doing is showing off,” said an oil company executive who lives near the complex.

Some of these fighters arrived at the front wearing loafers or deck shoes. Some didn’t bring weapons. Others have never fired an automatic rifle, much less the ancient, hand-cranked antiaircraft guns that dominate the rebel arsenal.

From pimply faced teens to silver-bearded retirees, the rebels dress in mismatched military uniforms looted from army barracks. Others wear sports shirts and jeans, with military cap or combat boots as an accessory.

There are few officers to give orders and few noncommissioned officers to enforce discipline. No authoritative leaders have emerged. There are few generals. In rebel Libya, everybody, like Kadafi, seems to be a colonel.

Sprinkled in among the civilians are deserters from Kadafi’s threadbare army garrisons in the east, but they’re not a huge help. They are poorly trained and thinly equipped, part of Kadafi’s strategy to keep the regular army weak in order to preclude coup attempts.

The army veterans have tried, with little success, to teach passionate young rebels rudimentary military skills. Many new fighters don’t know how to clean or disassemble the weapons they looted from army bases.

“Quiet! Please!” Col. Mohammed Abaidy, 53, a Libyan air force veteran, screamed at a young rebel a few feet away who unleashed a volley of ear-splitting antiaircraft fire at no particular target as Abaidy tried to speak Monday.

Abaidy, an air defense specialist, said there was only so much he could teach untrained civilians about battling the jet fighters that strafed the rebels Sunday and Monday.

“They are very brave, and they believe in the revolution, but they don’t know much about the military,” Abaidy said. He wore a flak vest, the only rebel in sight with body armor.

Arhoma Shahin, 46, a 23-year army veteran, was wearily showing a young rebel how to use an antiaircraft gun Monday. But he didn’t let the man fire it, or even turn the crank to aim it.

“This is a revolution -- we’re all new at this,” Shahin shrugged.

The rebels use the old antiaircraft guns in unorthodox ways. They often aim “direct fire” at people rather than skyward at aircraft, as the guns were designed to be used. Regardless of what they aim at, they usually miss.

A middle-aged rebel wearing dress shoes tried twice to fire a rocket-propelled grenade, but the weapon clicked harmlessly both times. Another rebel gave it a try -- and succeeded in firing the grenade into a nearby sand dune, where it exploded and nearly laced fellow rebels with shrapnel.

And the rebels waste astonishing amounts of ammunition with theatrical shooting and machismo. Ammunition has been at a premium since a huge arms depot blew up outside Benghazi on Saturday.

Several older rebels have used loudspeakers to beg their comrades to stop wasting ammunition. They have been uniformly ignored. When the rebels reload, they leave half-filled ammunition boxes scattered in the desert.

On Monday, the rebels did not seem chastened by their disorganized retreat the day before. They waved flags, fired guns and talked boldly of attacking Surt, though pro-Kadafi fighters still blocked their advance through Bin Jawwad.

The rebels continued to flout standard military procedure by massing fighters in large groups. A bomb or missile from a government jet fighter Monday afternoon missed the tightly packed rebels by only a few hundred yards.

It slammed down, with a tremendous boom that shook the desert floor, on a pickup truck carrying a family of six trying to flee the fighting.

They were part of an exodus of oil complex families awakened at 4 a.m. and warned to leave because airstrikes were imminent. Many of them hastily packed cars with clothing, food and TV sets and fled east to rebel-held territory.

Hospital workers at the Ras Lanuf Medical Center said they were told that a father, mother, grandmother and three children were seriously injured in the airstrike. The six were taken to a larger hospital in Port Brega, another rebel-held eastern oil city.

The pickup was crushed. Bright red blood was smeared on the driver’s door and across both seats. A child’s red sandals and a small pair of sneakers were inside, along with supplies of drinking water, juice packs and snacks.

Ashraf Kawaifi, 32, an engineer for an oil company in Benghazi who is now a rebel fighter, held up a shrapnel shard the size of a small shoebox.

“Is this Kadafi’s bravery? A warplane against a family escaping to the east?” Kawaifi shouted in English as rebel fighters cursed Kadafi and displayed the family’s sandals and sneakers.

Other fighters who gathered around the crumpled little truck vowed revenge against Kadafi’s men -- and fired their weapons at the desert sky.

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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