As the Libyan war grinds on across three fronts and rebel forces find themselves pinned down on their own territory outside two strategic eastern oil cities, the rebels’ most resolute European ally, France, is insisting that they negotiate with Moammar Kadafi to peacefully end their 5-month-old uprising.
Yet the rebels are sticking to their guns — literally.
They’re convinced that victory is inevitable and adamantly refuse to negotiate directly with Kadafi even as the French government contends that the Libyan leader is seeking ways to relinquish power.
After the United States formally recognized the rebel Transitional National Council on Friday as the country’s legitimate government body, the rebels again insisted that Kadafi must go before negotiations begin.
“Our position remains: no negotiations until Kadafi, his sons and his inner circle are gone,” said Habib Ben Ali, media liaison for the council.
In the rebels’ de facto capital, Benghazi, commanders lay out a battlefield strategy that seeks to allay concerns in Western capitals over the failure of the four-month NATO air campaign to topple the Kadafi regime. But the unorthodox approach relies more on faith and bluster than proven military tactics, and raises the prospect of a prolonged conflict.
Rebel commanders say they plan to strangle Kadafi by cutting off Tripoli, the capital, from three directions. They predict that government troop defections and low morale, combined with fuel and supply shortages, will open the way to the city soon.
But rebels on each front are devising their own strategies, with only limited direction from headquarters in Benghazi, said Abdul Jawad, a senior rebel commander.
“We are not a traditionally structured military organization,” Jawad said, a profound understatement given the rebels’ haphazard formations.
Rebel forces are poorly trained and equipped, with little central command and scant grasp of military tactics. For months, their commanders have promised the imminent “liberation” of Tripoli, only to find themselves mired in a protracted battlefield stalemate.
There were more promises last week, as Jawad and another prominent rebel commander, Ismail Salaby, assured followers of “very good news” and “a big surprise” on the battlefield in coming days. “You will be liberated very soon,” Salaby said, addressing rebels in government-held towns.
But a day after those confident predictions, rebels in the Nafusa Mountains in the west struggled to hold off a government assault on a remote village the rebels had seized just a week earlier — about 60 miles from their prize, Tripoli.
The lack of battlefield progress has frustrated North Atlantic Treaty Organization members. Many NATO countries are urging the two sides to negotiate, but the government and the rebels say publicly that they intend to fight or die.
The rebels are so confident, they have laid out a detailed plan for running the country. The opposition promises a temporary government in Tripoli, to include representatives from areas now held by Kadafi, followed by national elections and a constitution guaranteeing individual liberties. The rebels envision seating a newly elected government within 15 months of seizing Tripoli.
Although a council spokesman told The Times last month that the body had held indirect talks with government representatives, the council refuses to take part in direct negotiations.
“We will decide our own course, and that is to liberate Tripoli,” said Salaby, a bearded former imam who commands the rebels’ largest brigade.
Both sides are crippled by cash, fuel, ammunition and other shortages. Tripoli is suffering long gasoline lines and severe commodity shortages. Rebel fighters recently cut a major fuel line to the capital, already crippled by the NATO sea embargo and no-fly zone.
Some rebel leaders say they plan a major offensive to reach Tripoli before early August, the start of the monthlong Muslim holiday of Ramadan, when daily life halts for fasting and prayer. But others say a battlefield breakthrough in such a short time is unlikely.
Asked whether rebels could reach Tripoli by Ramadan, Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, the council vice president, hedged his bets.
“We would like to think that the tyrant would not still be in power by Ramadan,” Ghoga replied. “But if he is still there, then we’ll fight on and hope we can end this conflict very soon.”
Ghoga said rebels had been slowed by land mines planted by Kadafi forces and by superior firepower.
Col. Ahmed Bani, a former government air force pilot and now the rebels’ top military spokesman, said the conflict was likely to last into Ramadan.
“Ramadan will give our fighters an extra boost to their morale,” he said.
Kadafi still has more than 8,000 troops in the east, Bani said. And despite punishing daily airstrikes by NATO warplanes, he said government forces have held on to many tanks and rocket launchers by hiding them in civilian neighborhoods and farms where NATO fears civilian casualties.
Kadafi’s forces are being replenished by young cadets from the national military academy in Tripoli and by mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa, Bani said. But western rebels report mass defections of commanders and fighters. Bani said a large cadre of defecting officers was on the Tunisian border, poised to reenter Libya and assist the rebel campaign.
The western rebels hope to seize the strategic mountain city of Gharyan, which would allow them to cut Kadafi’s north-south supply lines to Tripoli from his southern desert stronghold of Sabha.
Other western rebels hope to advance enough to cut Kadafi’s supply line along the coastal highway to the western border with Tunisia.
Meanwhile, rebels moving west toward Tripoli from rebel-held Misurata, 125 miles east of the capital, are closing in on Zlitan, a government stronghold. Seizing Zlitan would propel rebels to the outskirts of Khums, the last major coastal city protecting the capital.
Those advances, if successful, would isolate Kadafi’s troops in the east in Port Brega, Ras Lanuf and the garrison town of Surt, 275 miles east of Tripoli by road.
But the rebel strategy assumes the sustained ground attacks mounted by Kadafi’s forces so far will somehow fade away. It also hinges on continued airstrikes and air and sea embargoes by NATO, as well as underground support from rebels operating inside government-held towns.
Bani said commanders are in daily contact with rebels in Tripoli and other government-held cities and are able to get some weapons to them.
“They know we’re coming,” Bani said, “and they will rise up to meet us.”