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World & Nation

Libyan rebels’ ragtag army left in disarray

Nabil Mustafa Kharraz rushed to the front without a weapon. He ended up in a grimy provincial hospital with rocket shrapnel in his brain and a bloodied bandage wrapped around his head like a turban.

“He’s a brave boy,” said his father, Mustafa Kharraz, standing at his son’s bedside and holding a tube containing dark shards of metal a doctor had plucked from the 20-year-old’s head. “I’m proud he did his duty for his country.”

In his rumpled bed a day after fleeing a withering assault by government forces in the oil city of Ras Lanuf, Nabil promised his father that he would fight again, though he still doesn’t know how to fire a gun.

Armed only with intense devotion to the revolution in eastern Libya, the chemical engineering student epitomizes the madly courageous but wildly incompetent rebel force that has taken on canny strongman Moammar Kadafi. Made up of students and clerks and accountants, the “people’s army” has proved supremely vulnerable and, in some cases, helpless.

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The idealistic protesters-turned-soldiers grew overconfident and inattentive after two swift triumphs. Then they retreated in chaos when Kadafi unleashed his professional army and its punishing heavy weapons and warplanes.

That resurgent army is now relentlessly pushing eastward, scattering the outgunned rebels. All that stands between Kadafi and rebel headquarters in Benghazi are disorganized volunteers and army defectors spread thinly along the coastal highway.

Not a single heavy-gun emplacement is dug in along the 140-mile desert highway from the rebels’ new defensive line in Port Brega to Benghazi. And all that protects Port Brega, a strategic oil hub, are the same outdated weapons that proved so ineffective in Ras Lanuf.

At a rebel checkpoint about 25 miles east of Ras Lanuf late Saturday, fighters flung themselves into the desert each time a government warplane passed overhead. Gun trucks ferrying rebel reinforcements, many unarmed, sped west to the front, passing ambulances, with blue lights flashing, headed in the opposite direction.

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It is an asymmetrical fight. The rebels can muster only ancient hand-cranked antiaircraft guns, heavy machine-guns, recoilless rifles, rockets, grenade launchers and assault rifles.

The pro-Kadafi forces fight with what the military calls “stand-off” weapons. From a distance, they pummel the rebels with airstrikes, artillery, tanks and, according to rebel fighters and opposition leaders, guns aboard ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

“I never saw them with my own eyes,” Ibrahim Sharf, 35, whose left leg was shattered by a rocket barrage, said of Kadafi’s troops. His leg, clumsily wrapped in gauze that oozed blood, was held together by four metal pins.

“If they would only fight us man to man, we’d destroy them,” Sharf said, grimacing in his hospital bed. He spotted an image of Kadafi on a hospital TV and made a brushing motion, as if swatting a fly.

The rebels, who fight from pickup trucks and cars with “People’s Army of Libya” spray-painted on them, have only three or four days’ cushion of gasoline supplies, said Khaled Ben Ali, a logistics official.

For the first time Saturday, motorists waited in long lines outside gas stations on the coastal highway. Some stations ran dry. The fighting has closed many oil refineries, triggering a fuel shortage in the rebel-held east.

Just one week ago, the rebels were dancing in the streets of Bin Jawwad, a desert outpost west of Ras Lanuf they seized March 5 in what had seemed an inexorable march to Tripoli, the capital. But they have been driven back since, losing at least 60 miles of coastal highway.

Port Brega, 85 miles east of Ras Lanuf, is now in Kadafi’s sights. The dictator’s son Seif Islam has vowed to reclaim the eastern half of Libya from rebels who have held it since late February.

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The Tripoli regime seems confident after battlefield triumphs in the east and in rebellious Zawiya, 30 miles west of the capital. A government-owned cellphone company recently sent a taunting mass text message to subscribers in the east, including many rebel fighters:

“Be happy. We are coming to liberate you soon!”

There is little coherent rebel leadership. At military bases in Benghazi, self-described “colonels” in mismatched military uniforms smoke cigarettes in dilapidated offices, watching the war unfold on Al Jazeera, the satellite news channel.

Special forces soldiers who defected from Kadafi’s eastern army are now providing badly needed leadership, opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said. But even as army regulars try to instruct civilian volunteers, the soldiers themselves have little or no combat experience.

Likewise, the businessmen and lawyers directing the rebel national council know little of military affairs. They refer reporters to an array of ever-shifting military spokesmen, few of whom spend any time at the front.

All week, spokesmen promised that tanks would arrive soon to save the day in Ras Lanuf. But the only tank visible on the road from Benghazi to the front Saturday was an ancient, rusting Soviet model. Teenaged boys played on the turret.

The rebels haven’t seized on their singular advantage: They are fast and nimble. Lightly armed Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan have bloodied U.S. forces for a decade, but the Libyan rebels haven’t dispatched small teams to harass the enemy behind the lines.

Only since Friday have the rebels even dispersed gun trucks across the desert to escape airstrikes. But scores of fighters still congregate in clusters, providing prime targets.

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At their westernmost secured checkpoint Saturday, fighters struggled to put on a brave front. Their bravado and enthusiasm remained intact, but there was tension within the ranks. Fighters argued openly over tactics, and a few scuffles broke out.

For the first time the day before, rebels required written permission for journalists to drive to the front. Some rebels now prohibit photographs of gun emplacements, after posing and grinning for photos next to those same weapons all week.

The opposition leadership is begging Western powers for a no-fly zone to negate Kadafi’s air superiority. Officials have said they will try to buy heavy weapons on their own if Western nations don’t step in.

Resentment toward the U.S. over its policy is growing.

“Where is America?” asked Issam Darebi, manning the main rebel checkpoint in Port Brega. “All they do is talk, talk, talk. They need to get rid of these planes killing Libyan people.”

Many rebels at the western checkpoint said they would need better and heavier weapons to prevail. Others, repeating the same promises made in Ras Lanuf before retreating, swore they would make a final stand if Kadafi’s forces stormed Port Brega.

“We won’t pull back,” said Montassar Rahani, 23, a student wearing sneakers and sweat pants. “We’ll die here first.”

A gray-bearded rebel in a Toyota sedan tried to rally the fading rebels.

“We’ll have heavier weapons, more training soon, shabab,” he shouted over a megaphone, addressing the young fighters. “But for now, organize yourselves!”

The fighters have begun writing rosters with the names of men in their vehicles. No one knows how many fighters there are.

As the rebels struggle to hold ground, the war creeps toward them. In the darkened halls of the Ajdabiya hospital, 45 miles east of Port Brega, Dr. Anis Bargty predicted more casualties.

“Yesterday the ambulance delivered just arms and legs,” he said. “A terrible day, and there will be more.”

In Bed 6 in the recovery ward, Tahar Ali, 38, a teacher, winced from the pain of rocket shrapnel that had punched ugly holes in his hip and thigh. It pained him, too, that whoever wounded him did so from a safe distance.

“I didn’t get a chance to attack anybody,” Ali complained.

It hardly mattered, for he did not have a gun. He had been issued a single grenade, which he clutched all the way to the hospital.

He laid it beside his bed until a friend took it for safekeeping. When his wounds heal, Ali vowed, he will retrieve the grenade and return to the front, even as it grinds east toward the hospital itself.

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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