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Kadafi marshals show of strength in Libyan capital

Embattled Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi marshaled cheering supporters and convoys of trucks said to be headed for rebel territory. His foes boasted of sending 500 men down the coastal highway for a showdown in Tripoli, the capital.

Little of the conflicting claims and choreographed displays of control shed light on the true balance of power in the latest Middle Eastern uprising against autocratic rule.

The Kadafi government's show of strength in and around Tripoli on Tuesday was for the benefit of foreign journalists on official tours of the capital, where the once seemingly invincible leader has hunkered down with loyalists and vowed to defeat the fierce challenge to his 41-year rule.

"I need Moammar Kadafi," said Abdul Salaam Abu Saifi, a 21-year-old student, as cars filled with supporters in the suburb of Qasr ben Ghashir honked horns and passengers pumped their fists in the air. "Those who say life is bad here are liars."

As Kadafi lieutenants cast a picture of calm and normality in areas still under the regime's control, opponents in the rebel-held east claimed that they had gained ground in several coastal cities and that they had repulsed government forces trying to take back at least three strategic venues that fell last week.

Even in the government-held towns around the capital where regime supporters took visiting journalists, frightened opponents whispered words of dissent when government minders were out of earshot, and the official pronouncements often had a hollow ring.

It was unimaginable, for instance, that the trucks reportedly headed to the eastern city of Benghazi with relief supplies could break through the rebel roadblocks along the huge stretches of coastal roadway. It was likewise impossible to verify rebel claims that they have organized an imminent surge toward Tripoli for final confrontation with Kadafi's forces.

About 500 young fighters, itching to join what they expect to be the final drive to topple Kadafi and take Tripoli, headed west, braving dangerous desert crossings to skirt the last government strongholds, rebel commanders in Benghazi reported.

As Kadafi foes and supporters weathered the tense impasse around Tripoli in the second week of the rebellion, the international community stepped up pressure on the defiant strongman with renewed calls for him to step down and for sanctions to punish his bloody crackdown.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned of the risk of protracted civil war in Libya but indicated that the Obama administration would approach any military action cautiously to avoid perceptions that the United States wants to "invade for oil." The White House is also aware of the Libyan rebels' desire to oust Kadafi without foreign help, she said.

In comments to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Clinton suggested that the administration is likely to continue to exercise restraint, even though officials have said military moves are under consideration.

Two U.S. amphibious assault ships were headed for the Mediterranean, as were 400 Marines, moves intended to keep U.S. forces poised to respond to any situation, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said.

"We are looking at a lot of options and contingencies," Gates said, noting that no actions have been authorized by the United Nations or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and that military strategists were discussing with President Obama the widest possible range of potential responses.

At United Nations headquarters in New York, the General Assembly suspended Libya from the U.N. Human Rights Council in a voice vote, heeding a recommendation by the council Friday to sanction Kadafi for using force against his people.

A U.N. spokesman also confirmed reports that Kadafi has taken steps to replace Libyan diplomats who have broken with him. The deputy U.N. ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told journalists that Tripoli was maneuvering to send envoys still loyal to Kadafi. Spokesman Martin Nesirky would say only that "the correspondence was being studied."

In Tripoli and the surrounding towns still loyal to Kadafi, regime supporters described reports of an emerging rebel enclave in the country's eastern half as a U.S. or British intelligence plot. They denied that the insurgency is part of a fever-like spread of democracy demands sweeping the Arab world from Morocco to Yemen.

"Tunisia is a miserable life. Egypt is a miserable life," said Ali Saleh, a 50-year-old businessman. "Here, everyone has a salary. In Libya, we have no reason to make a revolution. In Libya, all people are rich."

Many observers, including those either silent or unenthusiastic about the government, said the insecurity and fear stirred by fighting last week had calmed considerably in the last few days.

"For one or two days it was very bad," said Talal Arab, a doctor at the Green Hospital, where journalists were taken on an escorted visit. "But now everything is back to normal."

Many of the hospital staff have taken to living on the grounds, worried about the ride home. "We spend every day here," said Milica Petric, a Serbian nurse. "The first days we were so stressed, but things have gotten better."

Government supporters have become emboldened and are speaking out more enthusiastically and decisively. "Libya is a tribal society," said Salma Abdullah, a professor of political science at Fatah University taking part in a government-sponsored conference. "If Moammar Kadafi leaves, Libya will be like Somalia."

Some acknowledged that the pro-government rallies to which journalists were taken were less than spontaneous but insisted that those taking part were genuine supporters of Kadafi.

"When they turn on the Arab channels, they see only people against the government," said Abdul Rahman Saleh, a 22-year-old unemployed government supporter in the Tajoura district, referring to satellite news channels such as Al Jazeera. "They don't put on the air anyone who says that everything is OK."

But there were many signs that normal life remains elusive. Along a commercial strip considered one of Tripoli's liveliest, the only shop open was selling luggage to the hordes of foreign workers struggling to escape the unrest.

During a trip to the airport, where hundreds of foreigners were camped out awaiting relief flights home, a convoy of pickup trucks loaded with armed men in camouflage raced by. Soldiers, sometimes accompanied by armored personnel carriers and tanks, stood guard at key squares. Police at checkpoints warily eyed passengers as cars drove by.

During one pro-government rally in Tajoura, a young man whispered that most of those chanting slogans were substance abusers and low-level criminals. "They're crazy," he said. "They think they're going to get free cars if they take part."

A few spoke candidly out of earshot of government minders.

"We are living under this madness for 42 years," said one employee at the Green Hospital. "Friends of mine have been killed and others arrested."

Although government forces held the capital and the roads leading to it, opposition fighters managed to beat back an attack by Kadafi forces on Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, two commanders interviewed in Benghazi said. Rebels also held off government attacks in Misurata, about 120 miles east of the capital, and in Zintan, 45 miles to the south, they said.

The pro-Kadafi forces that entered Zawiya offered street fighters $100,000 to stop opposing the regime, said Col. Atia Abaidy, a commander at an army post in downtown Benghazi, now firmly under rebel control. Government troops failed in an attempt to surround Zawiya, he said.

Idris Laga, a member of the military council appointed Monday by the provisional government running Benghazi, said four volunteers attempting to get through the Kadafi stronghold of Surt were captured and executed.

Surt, nearly 250 miles east of the capital, blocks the coastal highway between Benghazi and Tripoli. Most of the rebels were bypassing Surt by detouring south through the desert, Laga said.

In Misurata, Kadafi loyalists holed up in a militia compound in the rebel-controlled coastal city pressed the regime's rear-guard effort to retake the strategic venue. Two local men were killed in clashes early Tuesday, said Saleh Abdulaziz of the rebel committee trying to run the volatile city.

A day earlier, Abdulaziz said, pro-Kadafi forces kidnapped Abdulrahman As-Swaihli and his three sons while they were in Tripoli trying to recruit rebel forces. They are the grandson and great-grandsons of Ramadan As-Swaihli, a hero of the Italian occupation revered by many Libyans.

"He has a great importance to this revolution. We warn Kadafi personally to release him," Abdulaziz said.

The provisional leadership member said he had seen at least 50 young fighters arrive in Misurata from the liberated east and that many more were reportedly streaming in for the final push against Kadafi.

"If anyone comes from the east who wants to help, we welcome them," Abdulaziz said. "Perhaps the wise ones, they say it might be risky, but the young men seek martyrdom in this cause."

daragahi@latimes.com

david.zucchino@latimes.com

Daragahi reported from Tripoli and Zucchino from Benghazi. Times staff writers Raja Abdulrahim in Benghazi, Paul Richter in Washington and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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