On Libya’s eastern front, as allied warplanes circled Tuesday, the word on the lips of several rebel fighters near the government-held city of Ajdabiya was sabor, or “patience” in Arabic.
“Yes, yes, patience is what we need,” said Mustafa Arobaa, an oil company engineer turned rebel fighter. “Time will kill them.”
Like many fighters, he was waiting for allied warplanes to pound Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s tanks in the city before mounting a concerted push.
For now, though, the fighting here has reached an uneasy stalemate, with Kadafi’s forces retaining just enough firepower to beat back sporadic rebel attacks. The ragtag rebel units seem content to wait until the government troops run out of supplies or allied airstrikes destroy their weapons advantage.
Thus far, rebel fighters, many of them civilian volunteers, have been unable to exploit the airstrikes that have crippled forces loyal to the Libyan leader. Government forces holed up in Ajdabiya, a city of 120,000, continued to punish the rebels with volleys from tanks and rocket batteries.
Gun-toting rebels at a desert checkpoint roughly seven miles north of Ajdabiya argued over strategy Tuesday after rebel forays into the city were repulsed. Shells exploded a mile away, kicking up plumes of dark gray smoke, as rebel gun trucks sped away from the city bearing wounded fighters bound for Benghazi, 95 miles north.
Several rebels said forces loyal to Kadafi have cut electricity, water and natural gas to parts of Ajdabiya. Bread and water supplies are running low for civilians who were unwilling or unable to flee when government forces stormed in last week.
Troops manning government tanks and rocket batteries are now trying to hide from allied warplanes by setting up next to homes and shops, rebels said. But the opposition forces seemed inadequate to the task of driving Kadafi’s men out of the city unless airstrikes first pave the way.
“They’re still too strong for us,” said Munir Souf. He and other rebels in a pickup mounted with a heavy machine gun retreated under fire from Ajdabiya on Tuesday morning. His troops, Souf said, “are afraid of the tanks and rockets.”
The scene outside Ajdabiya was chaotic.
“We’re trying to coordinate our next operation, but all these excited volunteers rushing down the highway and drawing fire is corrupting everything,” Arobaa complained, referring to bands of newly minted soldiers who drove wildly past in dusty gun trucks.
Arobaa, 46, with a trim silver beard, is much older and more calculating than most rebels. He screamed orders at young gunmen milling on the roadway, but they grumbled and ignored him.
Although rebels said they have fighters in some Ajdabiya neighborhoods, Kadafi’s forces control much of the city, as well as the coastal highway.
But government troops are running low on food and ammunition, and their supply lines along the desert highway are vulnerable to airstrikes. A pullout would expose their remaining tanks and rocket batteries to more air attacks.
President Obama has demanded that Kadafi withdraw his forces from Ajdabiya and two cities in western Libya also under government assault, Misurata and Zawiya. On Tuesday, Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear said the U.S. is “considering all options” to protect civilians besieged by government forces in those cities.
The U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention in Libya is intended to protect Libyan civilians from government attack, primarily by establishing a no-fly zone to ground government warplanes. Pentagon commanders have said the purpose of airstrikes is to protect civilians, not provide close air support for the rebels.
Warplanes could be heard circling over Ajdabiya on Tuesday, but there was no immediate indication they had attacked government positions in the city.
Attacks by French, U.S. and British warplanes halted a government tank and rocket assault on Benghazi, the rebel capital, over the weekend. Kadafi’s forces retreated to Ajdabiya, leaving an 80-mile trail of demolished armor smoking in the desert.
Ajdabiya controls two important highways leading to rebel-held eastern Libya. But rebels positioned near the city are dependent on food, ammunition and supplies from Benghazi, which has its own problems.
Fighting has cut off natural gas from the pipeline that normally fuels power plants in Benghazi, said Arobaa, who directed pipeline maintenance in the oil refinery complex in nearby Port Brega. Benghazi is relying instead on diesel from a refinery in rebel-held Tobruk, along with diesel imported from Italy into Tobruk.
Previously, rebel checkpoints were generously supplied by boxes of bottled water, fruit juice, food and ammunition. But there were no supplies stockpiled at checkpoints Tuesday, and gasoline was scarce along the route from Ajdabiya to Benghazi.
And with a popular government-owned cellphone network cut off by the regime in Tripoli, rebel communications are chaotic and cursory.
The rebels have advanced only a few miles south since racing to Ajdabiya two days ago on the heels of the government retreat forced by airstrikes. Their westernmost secured checkpoint here is still about seven miles from the city.
“We’re stuck here,” said Jamal Zelitny, 54, an oil drilling engineer who has lived in San Diego and is now a volunteer rebel fighter. He manned the checkpoint while wearing a Libyan army special forces uniform on loan from a friend.
“Maybe we can move a few miles closer, but it’s dangerous,” Zelitny said in fluent English.
The checkpoint is within rocket range. One rocket flew over the fighters’ heads Tuesday, exploding in the sand and scattering panicked rebels.
“I don’t think anything will move on either side unless there are airstrikes,” Zelitny said.
All around him, other fighters peered at the skies, listening for allied aircraft.
As the fighters milled around, a white pickup truck pulled up. Inside was a man in a colonel’s uniform. A reporter rushed to interview the officer, hoping to at last find someone in command.
But Col. Jamal Zwey wasn’t in charge of anyone. He was desperately trying to figure out a way into Ajdabiya, where he said his family was trapped.
Zwey said Kadafi’s forces unleashed a rocket barrage on his family’s neighborhood after a band of rebel fighters stole into Ajdabiya during the night and captured a government tank.
“Kadafi is destroying the city,” the colonel said. “I need to go and get my family out of there.”
Inside the pickup were cartons of baby formula and two thick packages of diapers. The colonel gunned the engine and drove in haste toward the city, past rebels still debating the right time to advance on Ajdabiya.