The nascent rebel effort in eastern Libya, sustained for weeks by revolutionary passion and zeal, has begun to fray in the face of chaotic battlefield collapses and ineffective leadership.
Many of the idealistic young men who looted army depots of gun trucks and weapons six weeks ago believed the tyrannical 41-year reign of Col. Moammar Kadafi would quickly collapse under the weight of a mass rebellion.
Now those same volunteer fighters, most of whom had never before fired a gun, have fled a determined onslaught by Kadafi’s forces, which have shown resilience after being bombarded and routed by allied airstrikes a week ago.
Some exhausted rebels capped a 200-plus mile retreat up the Libyan coast by fleeing all the way to Benghazi, the rebels’ de facto capital, to rest and regroup. Others remained at thinly manned positions at the strategic crossroads city of Ajdabiya on Thursday.
Small groups of rebels stood their ground and fought Kadafi militiamen who seemed on the verge late Thursday of recapturing the oil city of Port Brega.
For many rebel fighters, the absence of competent military leadership and a tendency to flee at the first shot have contributed to sagging morale. Despite perfunctory V-for-victory signs and cries of “Allahu akbar!” (God is great), the eager volunteers acknowledge that they are in for a long, uphill fight.
“Kadafi is too strong for us, with too many heavy weapons. What can we do except fall back to protect ourselves?” said Salah Chaiky, 41, a businessman, who said he fired his assault rifle while fleeing Port Brega even though he was too far away to possibly hit the enemy.
Retreating rebels paused only to wolf down lunches provided by volunteers supporting their cause. Two in mismatched military uniforms took time out in Ajdabiya to sneak into a blown-out police post and smoke hashish.
With many rebels headed home, the 140 miles of highway between Port Brega and Benghazi was only lightly guarded Thursday. But fighters and spokesmen for the opposition movement predicted that Kadafi’s forces would not chase them up the highway for fear of another pounding from allied warplanes.
Rebels surrounded by garbage and swarms of flies at a checkpoint in Ajdabiya complained that their erstwhile commanders were nowhere to be found. They griped about comrades who had fled to the relative safety of Benghazi, and about a dearth of weapons and ammunition.
They say orders are never issued, except by fellow fighters, and that those are routinely ignored. Kadafi family members who control Libya’s cellphone network have cut most cell communications in the rebel-held east, leaving each gun truck to fight on its own.
A Libyan telecommunications specialist who works for the opposition said forces in Benghazi had monopolized 400 donated field radios and 400 more Thuraya and Iridium satellite phones intended for the battlefield.
Several fighters said they were now being charged one Libyan dinar (about 80 cents) per bullet because rebels had wasted thousands of precious rounds firing wildly into the air. During the panicked retreat from the desert hamlet of Bin Jawwad on Tuesday, many fighters fired randomly as they fled, sometimes just over the heads of fellow rebels.
Few, if any, T-72 tanks and BM-21 rocket launchers recovered from government forces who abandoned the weapons during Western-led airstrikes have been brought to the front. Opposition leaders, who say defecting government soldiers are qualified to supervise rebel volunteers, say those same regulars aren’t trained to operate the tanks and rockets.
“These guys weren’t taught anything under Kadafi,” said Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman. “He made sure they didn’t know how to operate these kinds of weapons” because he feared a coup.
Opposition leaders say they are struggling to bring discipline to their rudderless forces by reshuffling the military command. But rebels say commanders rarely visit the battlefield and exercise little authority because many fighters don’t trust them.
Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, Kadafi’s former interior minister and ex-commander of army special forces, is viewed with suspicion by some rebels and political leaders in Benghazi. He was the nominal rebel commander until last weekend and still holds a prominent position.
: “A lot of people wonder why he joined the revolution,” said Zahi Mogherbi, a retired political science professor who advises the opposition’s national council. Younis’ role “has delayed the integration and coordination of regular army forces,” Mogherbi said.
Younis has been challenged by another former Kadafi confidant, Khalifa Hefter, a former army officer who broke with Kadafi years ago and moved to the U.S. Hefter has clashed with Younis since returning recently to Libya and replacing him as titular commander of the rebel movement.
“Both are very high commanders, very strong commanders, who need to reach an understanding on how to collaborate effectively,” said Essam Gheriani, another opposition spokesman.
He said opposition leaders met late Thursday to come up with “genuine change” in the command structure.
Several rebel fighters said some Kadafi loyalists are seeking to evade airstrikes by fighting from pickups similar to the white, Chinese-made vehicles favored by rebel forces.
“They want to confuse the airplanes,” said Ali Gweidy, a fighter from Benghazi. “They’re terrified of those planes.”
Even so, many rebels in gun trucks turned and fled Thursday, even though their heavy machine guns and antiaircraft guns seemed a match for any similar government vehicle.
“Would you stay and fight if you were getting shelled from 20 kilometers away?” Mustafa Gheriani said, referring to Grad rockets fired by government forces.
Another battlefield problem for the rebels is the scores of teenagers who have flocked to the front. They seem drawn by the idea of fighting and the spirit of revolution, but they carry no weapons.
Five friends, all age 19, piled into a battered blue Mazda in a coastal town east of Benghazi on Thursday and drove to the front near Port Brega. They watched a rocket or grenade slam into a rebel gun truck, wounding a fighter.
“We came to help, with ammunition, with the wounded, anything to be of service,” said Tarik Abdel Gadar, who said he had paid about $15 for his army fatigues.
In Ajdabiya, eight teens from east of Benghazi said they had followed the rebels into battle for the last 17 days after hitching rides to the front. They sat gorging on food handouts, singing and mocking Kadafi with chants of “Forward to the front! No return!” — favorite phrases of the Libyan leader.
Essam Gheriani said rebels staffing checkpoints had been instructed to keep unarmed youths from reaching the front.
“They act like this is some kind of Rambo movie,” he said. “This is a war, not a picnic.”
Despite the battlefield losses and confusion, opposition spokesmen pointed to two positive developments.
The opposition has recently begun dispatching fishing boats to carry supplies and medicine from Benghazi to besieged rebels in Misurata in the west, they said. Rebels there control the city’s port.
The opposition is also finalizing a deal for the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar to broker oil produced for export in rebel-controlled oil fields in eastern Libya, which accounts for 75% of Libya’s production.