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Resignation sets in for Libya rebels

Graffiti and billboards here tell a tale of dashed hopes and an uncertain future in a nation divided between Moammar Kadafi’s tenacious regime in western Libya and the fragile rebel government-in-waiting in the east.

The graffiti that proclaimed “Game over” for Kadafi in February and spoke longingly of freedom have faded in the scorching summer sun. Gone are rebel billboards that once blared “No foreign intervention!”

Now billboards warn rebel gunmen to stop firing their weapons into the air because ammunition is precious and, as the image of a distressed baby attests, it terrifies families.

Frayed posters still thank NATO nations for airstrikes and sea and air embargoes, but the rebel leadership is growing impatient with unfulfilled promises of cash payments and with NATO’s failure to topple Kadafi.

The enthusiastic daily rallies that once clogged streets and sent tracer fire into the night skies are gone. Thousands of eager young men who volunteered for the rebel army are either mired in battle on three fronts, back home to rest, or part of the growing roster of war casualties.

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More than five months after rebellion erupted here, insurgents in this eastern Libya stronghold remain locked in a military and diplomatic stalemate in their efforts to overthrow Kadafi. A sense of weariness and unease has settled over the de facto rebel capital, where rival street militias answer to no one but themselves.

The killing of a top rebel commander, Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, by his own men Thursday exposed divisions within a rebel movement now facing rising anger from Younis’ powerful Obeidi tribe. The rebel Transitional National Council seemed paralyzed by the killing, issuing a disingenuous communique that refused to acknowledge that a dissident rebel faction had killed Younis.

On Sunday, rebel militiamen engaged in a shootout here with militiamen described as “fifth column” saboteurs loyal to Kadafi. The firefight underscored the deep fissures along tribal and political fault lines, pitting ex-Kadafi loyalists against former street protesters and tribal-based militias.

Meanwhile, the council is desperately short of cash and fuel as its poorly trained fighters struggle to make headway against the government’s military. Most rebel supporters are resigned to a long, bloody fight to overthrow Kadafi.

“I wouldn’t say the revolution has slowed down, but it has matured and become more realistic,” said Mustafa Gheriani, a former spokesman for the rebel council who is now in private business.

The council is still awaiting millions of dollars promised by Western nations opposed to Kadafi, secured by billions in frozen Libyan assets used as collateral. The money has been held up by legal and procedural hurdles.

“Up to now, nothing,” Habib Ben Ali, the council’s media liaison, said last week. “We hear lots of promises, but we haven’t seen the money yet.”

The council says it needs $3.5 billion this year to run civil affairs and pursue the war. Asked how soon he expected the cash, council vice president Abdul Hafiz Ghoga said with a sigh, “Very soon, inshallah [God willing].”

On July 15, the U.S. formally recognized the rebel council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people. While saying it ultimately favors a political settlement, the U.S. backs rebel refusals to negotiate with Kadafi unless he and his inner circle step down.

“The American message is: No deals,” Ben Ali said.

Recently, France and Britain softened their positions and said Kadafi could possibly remain in Libya if he gave up power, a move Ben Ali called “very cynical.”

The council president, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, said recently that he could envision a scenario in which Kadafi remained in Libya. But he quickly backtracked under pressure from other council members.

The current rebel position is that Kadafi must be put on trial, either in Libya or by the International Criminal Court, which has issued arrest warrants for Kadafi, his son and his intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity.

In recognizing the rebels, the U.S. has accepted council assurances that it harbors no Al Qaeda-style Islamic radicals, council members and diplomats said. Western powers are comfortable with council promises to hold elections, draft a constitution guaranteeing individual liberties and form an inclusive transitional government.

But there are lingering concerns about the council’s insistence on Islamic law as the basis for any legislation in the post-Kadafi era, according to diplomats here. Another concern is that after 41 years of jailings, torture and killings of dissidents under Kadafi, many Libyans are eager to settle scores with his security forces and tribal supporters. Sunday’s firefight between rebel factions may be a prelude to wider bloodletting if Kadafi falls.

If Kadafi is killed — or captured and tried — widespread reprisals might be avoided, Gheriani said. But if he is allowed to remain in Libya or flee into exile, Libyans will feel that justice has been denied.

“In that case,” Gheriani said, “all the people who did his bidding, his militias and so on, could very well be slaughtered by those seeking revenge.”

On the war front, Jalil said rebel forces would fight with “even higher morale” during Ramadan unless Kadafi stepped down. That possibility was swiftly rejected by the government, which says it will never negotiate Kadafi’s removal and will not negotiate at all unless the NATO airstrikes end.

As fighting grinds on in the strategic eastern oil city of Port Brega, and in the Nafusa Mountains and rebel enclave of Misurata in the west, the rebels have not abandoned their penchant for outlandish promises and battlefield bluster.

Rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani regularly predicts that rebel forces will “liberate and purify” Port Brega from “the tyrant” in “just a few days.” Bani describes government resistance there as “negligible.” He says land mines, not government firepower, are slowing the rebel advance.

But fighters returning from the front say Kadafi’s soldiers are putting up a fierce fight. Since the latest rebel assault on Port Brega began July 14, scores of rebels have died and hundreds have been wounded.

Port Brega is significant because of its petrochemical complex and oil terminal. But it may be an empty prize. The rebels have held the city twice before but were unable to get the oil flowing. Oil engineers in Benghazi say the complex is not likely to be reopened any time soon, assuming Kadafi’s forces don’t blow it up.

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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