libyan uprising

LIBYA. February 2011.

In February 2011, an uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year-old autocratic rule, has left an estimated 1,000 people dead and many wounded. Several parts of Libya, including Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi, have been taken by anti-government rebels, who have since formed an Interim Transitional National Council. Benghazi, where rebel headquarters are located, has sustained air strikes and ongoing clashes by forces loyal to Gaddafi and is threatened by heavy fighting in nearby Ajdabiya, near the Egyptian border. In the capital, Tripoli, pro-government demonstrators take to the streets with support for their leader. The conflict has led to an immense exodus of people by land, sea and air, while many remain stranded.

Photograph: Eric Bouvet

The Price of Getting It Wrong

By Conn Hallinan, Foreign Policy in Focus, Oct. 14, 2011
“In 1979, when Soviet troops swept into Afghanistan, an angry Jimmy Carter organized an unofficial alliance to give the Soviets ‘their Vietnam’ (which Afghanistan became).”–New York Times, 11/9/11

The writer of the above paragraph is Marvin Kalb, a former network correspondent, Harvard professor emeritus, co-author “Haunting legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama.”

It is false history. As Paul Jay of the Real News (and before him, the French publication Le Nouvel Observateur) discovered, the Carter administration made the decision to intervene in an Afghan civil war fully six months before the Soviet invasion. In a July 1979 “finding” the White House authorized U.S. military and intelligence agencies to supply the anti-communist mujahideen fighters with money and supplies.

The “finding” was the beginning of “Operation Cyclone,” a clandestine plan aimed at luring the Soviets into invading Afghanistan. From a relatively modest $23 million down payment, Cyclone turned into a multi-billion behemoth–the most expensive intelligence operation in U.S. history–and one that eventually forced the Soviets to withdraw.

Cynics might shrug and respond that isn’t truth always the first casualty of war? Except in this case the casualties are still coming in as the U.S. marks its 10th year occupying Afghanistan. And when one totes up the collateral damage from that July 1979 memo, which led to the eventual victory of the Taliban, it chills the soul.

When the mujahideen went home, they took the war with them, to Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Central Asia, North Africa, and a host of other places. They also permanently altered the skyline silhouette of New York City. In the annals of disastrous “blowbacks”–unintended consequences flowing from a policy or event–U.S. support for overthrowing the Afghan government and supporting the mujahideen has little competition.

Ancient history?

On Mar. 18, President Obama told the U.S. Congress that U.S. involvement in the war in Libya would be a matter of “days not weeks.” It turns out, lots of days, 227 and counting.

“It’s really quite interesting how resilient and fierce they’ve been,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Jodice II told the New York Times. “We’re all surprised by the tenacity of the pro-Qaddafi forces.”

Besides the rather creepy use of the word “interesting” to describe people you are trying to blow up with 500-pound bombs and Hellfire missiles, the key word in the general’s statement is “surprised.” Aside from destruction, about the only truth of war is surprise. As Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Prussian Army chief of staff, and one of the great military minds of the 19th century, once noted, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

It appears that when the President made those comments, he had been listening to generals, always a very bad idea. President Johnson listened to generals in Vietnam, and they told him some variation of what our current generals obviously told Obama: Piece of cake. We’ll bomb the bejesus out of these Arabs, and in a few days they’ll turn tail and run for the sand dunes.

Except they didn’t.

In the long run the combination of bombing, ground support by British Special Forces, and the unpopularity of the regime will eventually defeat the pro-Qaddafi forces, but because this has turned into a war of some 34-plus weeks, there is going to be some very serious blowback.

For starters, take the 20,000 mobile ground to air missiles, most of which have gone missing. There are two basic kinds that someone–we haven’t the foggiest idea who–has gotten their hands on.

The SA-24 “Grinch”, or Igla-S, is a very dangerous character. It has a range of some three miles, a powerful warhead, and a guidance system that lets it find targets at night. It is similar to the U.S. Stinger that so distressed the Soviets in Afghanistan. Introduced in 1983, it can hit a plane at 11,000 feet. It can also down drones and cruise missiles, and helicopters are toast.

The other ground-to-air is the older Russian SA-7 “Grail,” or Strela-2, originally deployed in the 1968, but upgraded in 1972. It has an infrared detection system–it homes in on an aircraft’s engine heat–and the upgraded model has a filter for screening out decoy flares. The SA-7 is similar, but considerably superior, to the U.S. Redeye. The SA-7 has a range of a little over two miles and can reach up to 16,000 feet.

“We are talking about some 20,000 surface-to-air missiles in all of Libya,” according to Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights emergencies director, who says that “ in every city we arrive, the first thing to disappear are the surface-to-air missiles.” According to Bouckaert, “They could turn all of North Africa into a no-fly zone.”

One prediction: Niger has recently been using helicopters to attack the Tuareg-led Movement of Nigeriens for Justice in the Sahara. Tuaregs are demanding compensation for rich deposits of uranium that French companies are currently mining, and the Niger government has responded with military force. The Qaddafi government supported the Tuaregs in their fight with Niger, and supplied them with weapons. Want to make a bet that the Tuaregs end up with some of those missiles and that the Niger military is about to lose some helicopters?

And the fall of Qaddafi may not end the fighting. Libya is a complex place with strong crosscurrents of tribe and ethnicity. For instance, it is unlikely that the Berbers in the south will accept continued domination by the Arab north.

As for false history: journalism, as the old saw goes, is history’s first draft. According to the mainstream media, the U.S. and NATO got into the Libyan civil war to protect civilians, and indeed, one of the reasons the war has gone on so long is that NATO is reluctant to attack targets in Qaddafi strongholds, like Sirte, because such attacks might result in civilian casualties.

Which makes it hard to explain the Agence France Presse story entitled “NATO, NTC [National Transitional Council] deadlier than Kadhafi diehards: Sirte escapees.”

Sirte, Libya (AFP) Oct. 6, 2011–Fine words from NATO and Libyan new regime fighters about protecting civilians means little to the furious residents of Sirte, whose homes are destroyed and relatives killed in the battle to capture Moamer Kadhafi’s hometown.

“Why is NATO bombing us?” asks Faraj Mussam, whose blue minivan was carrying his family of eight jammed in beside mattresses and suitcases as they fled the city this week.“

According to the AFP story, the greatest danger civilians face in Sirte is from NATO bombs and shelling by NTC forces outside the city. A Red Cross official told AFP that there are still tens of thousands of residents in Sirte–it was a city of 100,000 before the February revolution–and they are under constant danger from artillery and bombs.

"When asked if NATO was fulfilling its mission to protect civilians, one aid worker, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, replied: 'It wouldn’t seem so.’

” 'There’s a lot of indiscriminate fire,’ he said, adding that many of the Sirte residents and doctors he had spoken to had complained of the deadly results of NATO air strikes.“

According to AFP, NTC soldiers say that firing artillery and rockets into Sirte doesn’t endanger civilians because they are all gone. It is a contention aid workers heatedly dispute.

The UN resolution that authorized the NATO intervention was supposedly aimed at protecting Libyan civilians. It quickly morphed from saving lives to regime change, and somehow the "protect civilians” only seems to apply to those who are on one side of the civil war. Sooner or later that narrative is going to come out, and the next time “protecting civilians” comes up in the UN, it is unlikely to get serious consideration.

More than 30 years ago the U.S. intervened in the Afghan civil war in order to goad our Cold War enemy into a fatal mistake (and then lied about it). We are still paying for that policy.

Eight months ago the U.S. and its allies engineered an intervention in Libya’s civil war behind the cover of protecting civilians, a rationale that is increasingly being challenged by events in that country.

What the “blowback” from the Libyan War is still unclear, it might be a bad idea to invest a lot of your money in commercial air travel anywhere in Africa, the Middle East or Central Asia. Qaddafi’s days may be numbered, but those SA-24s and SA-7s are going to be around for a long time.

Files Note Close C.I.A. Ties to Qaddafi Spy Unit

By Rod Nordland, NY Times, September 2, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya–Documents found at the abandoned office of Libya’s former spymaster appear to provide new details of the close relations the Central Intelligence Agency shared with the Libyan intelligence service–most notably suggesting that the Americans sent terrorism suspects at least eight times for questioning in Libya despite that country’s reputation for torture.

Although it has been known that Western intelligence services began cooperating with Libya after it abandoned its program to build unconventional weapons in 2004, the files left behind as Tripoli fell to rebels show that the cooperation was much more extensive than generally known with both the C.I.A. and its British equivalent, MI-6.

Some documents indicate that the British agency was even willing to trace phone numbers for the Libyans, and another appears to be a proposed speech written by the Americans for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi about renouncing unconventional weapons.

The documents were discovered Friday by journalists and Human Rights Watch. There were at least three binders of English-language documents, one marked C.I.A. and the other two marked MI-6, among a larger stash of documents in Arabic.

It was impossible to verify their authenticity, and none of them were written on letterhead. But the binders included some documents that made specific reference to the C.I.A., and their details seem consistent with what is known about the transfer of terrorism suspects abroad for interrogation and with other agency practices.

And although the scope of prisoner transfers to Libya has not been made public, news media reports have sometimes mentioned it as one country that the United States used as part of its much criticized rendition program for terrorism suspects.

A C.I.A. spokeswoman, Jennifer Youngblood, declined to comment on Friday on the documents. But she added: “It can’t come as a surprise that the Central Intelligence Agency works with foreign governments to help protect our country from terrorism and other deadly threats.”

The British Foreign Office said, “It is the longstanding policy of the government not to comment on intelligence matters.”

While most of the renditions referred to in the documents appear to have been C.I.A. operations, at least one was claimed to have been carried out by MI-6.

“The rendition program was all about handing over these significant figures related to Al Qaeda so they could torture them and get the information they wanted,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, who studied the documents in the intelligence headquarters in downtown Tripoli.

The documents cover 2002 to 2007, with many of them concentrated in late 2003 and 2004, when Moussa Koussa was head of the External Security Organization. (Mr. Koussa was most recently Libya’s foreign minister.)

The speech that appears to have been drafted for Colonel Qaddafi was found in the C.I.A. folder and appears to have been sent just before Christmas in 2003. The one-page speech seems intended to depict the Libyan dictator in a positive light. It concluded, using the revolutionary name for the Libyan government: “At a time when the world is celebrating the birth of Jesus, and as a token of our contributions towards a world full of peace, security, stability and compassion, the Great Jamhariya presents its honest call for a W.M.D.-free zone in the Middle East,” referring to weapons of mass destruction.

The flurry of communications about renditions are dated after Libya’s renouncement of its weapons program. In several of the cases, the documents explicitly talked about having a friendly country arrest a suspect, and then suggested aircraft would be sent to pick the suspect up and deliver him to the Libyans for questioning. One document included a list of 89 questions for the Libyans to ask a suspect.

While some of the documents warned Libyan authorities to respect such detainees’ human rights, the C.I.A. nonetheless turned them over for interrogation to a Libyan service with a well-known history of brutality.

The document also suggested signs of agency rivalries over Libya. In the MI-6 binder, a document boasted of having turned over someone named Abu Abd Alla to the Libyans. “This was the least we could do for you to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years,” an unsigned fax in 2004 said. “Amusingly, we got a request from the Americans to channel requests for information from Abu Abd through the Americans. I have no intention of doing any such thing.”

America's Secret Plan to Arm Libya's Rebels

By Robert Fisk, The Independent, March 07, 2011
Desperate to avoid US military involvement in Libya in the event of a prolonged struggle between the Gaddafi regime and its opponents, the Americans have asked Saudi Arabia if it can supply weapons to the rebels in Benghazi. The Saudi Kingdom, already facing a “day of rage” from its 10 per cent Shia Muslim community on Friday, with a ban on all demonstrations, has so far failed to respond to Washington’s highly classified request, although King Abdullah personally loathes the Libyan leader, who tried to assassinate him just over a year ago.

Washington’s request is in line with other US military co-operation with the Saudis. The royal family in Jeddah, which was deeply involved in the Contra scandal during the Reagan administration, gave immediate support to American efforts to arm guerrillas fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan in 1980 and later–to America’s chagrin–also funded and armed the Taliban.

But the Saudis remain the only US Arab ally strategically placed and capable of furnishing weapons to the guerrillas of Libya. Their assistance would allow Washington to disclaim any military involvement in the supply chain–even though the arms would be American and paid for by the Saudis.

The Saudis have been told that opponents of Gaddafi need anti-tank rockets and mortars as a first priority to hold off attacks by Gaddafi’s armour, and ground-to-air missiles to shoot down his fighter-bombers.

Supplies could reach Benghazi within 48 hours but they would need to be delivered to air bases in Libya or to Benghazi airport. If the guerrillas can then go on to the offensive and assault Gaddafi’s strongholds in western Libya, the political pressure on America and Nato–not least from Republican members of Congress–to establish a no-fly zone would be reduced.

US military planners have already made it clear that a zone of this kind would necessitate US air attacks on Libya’s functioning, if seriously depleted, anti-aircraft missile bases, thus bringing Washington directly into the war on the side of Gaddafi’s opponents.

For several days now, US Awacs surveillance aircraft have been flying around Libya, making constant contact with Malta air traffic control and requesting details of Libyan flight patterns, including journeys made in the past 48 hours by Gaddafi’s private jet which flew to Jordan and back to Libya just before the weekend.

But Saudi Arabia is already facing dangers from a co-ordinated day of protest by its own Shia Muslim citizens who, emboldened by the Shia uprising in the neighbouring island of Bahrain, have called for street protests against the ruling family of al-Saud on Friday.

If the Saudi government accedes to America’s request to send guns and missiles to Libyan rebels, however, it would be almost impossible for President Barack Obama to condemn the kingdom for any violence against the Shias of the north-east provinces.

Thus has the Arab awakening, the demand for democracy in North Africa, the Shia revolt and the rising against Gaddafi become entangled in the space of just a few hours with US military priorities in the region.

The secret plan to take Tripoli

By Samia Nakhoul, Reuters, Sept. 6, 2011
TRIPOLI (Reuters)–Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was delivered by a caterer, on a memory stick.

Abdel Majid Mlegta ran the companies that supplied meals to Libyan government departments including the interior ministry. The job was “easy,” he told Reuters last week. “I built good relations with officers. I wanted to serve my country.”

But in the first few weeks of the uprising, he secretly began to work for the rebels. He recruited sympathizers at the nerve center of the Gaddafi government, pinpointed its weak links and its command-and-control strength in Tripoli, and passed that information onto the rebel leadership on a series of flash memory cards.

The first was handed to him, he says, by Gaddafi military intelligence and security officers. It contained information about seven key operations rooms in the capital, including internal security, the Gaddafi revolutionary committees, the popular guards–as Gaddafi’s voluntary armed militia was known–and military intelligence.

The data included names of the commanders of those units, how many people worked in each center and how they worked, as well as crucial details like the number plates of their cars, and how each unit communicated with the central command led by intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi and Gaddafi’s second son Saif al-Islam.

That memory card–which Mlegta later handed to officials at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)–provided the basis of a sophisticated plan to topple the Libyan dictator and seize Tripoli. The operation, which took months of planning, involved secretly arming rebel units inside the capital. Those units would help NATO destroy strategic targets in the city–operation rooms, safe houses, military barracks, police stations, armored cars, radars and telephone centers. At an agreed time, the units would then rise up as rebels attacked from all sides.

The rebels called the plan Operation Dawn Mermaid. This is the inside story–much of it never before told–of how that plan unfolded.

The rebels were not alone. British operatives infiltrated Tripoli and planted radio equipment to help target air strikes and avoid killing civilians, according to U.S. and allied sources. The French supplied training and transport for new weapons. Washington helped at a critical late point by adding two extra Predator drones to the skies over Tripoli, improving NATO’s ability to strike. Also vital, say western and rebel officials, was the covert support of Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Doha gave weapons, military training and money to the rebels.

By the time the rebels were ready for the final assault, they were so confident of success that they openly named the date and time of the attack: Saturday, August 20, at 8 p.m., just after most people in Tripoli broke their Ramadan fast.

“We didn’t make it a secret,” said Mohammed Gula, who led a pro-rebel political cell in central Tripoli and spoke to Reuters as rebels first entered Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah compound. “We said it out on the street. People didn’t believe us. They believe us now.”

Planning began in April, two months into the uprising. Rebel leader Mahmoud Jibril and three other senior insurgents met in the Tunisian city of Djerba, according to both Mlegta and another senior official from the National Transitional Council (NTC), as the alternative rebel government calls itself.

The three were Mlegta, who by then had fled Tripoli and joined the rebels as the head of a brigade; Ahmed Mustafa al-Majbary, who was head of logistics and supplies; and Othman Abdel-Jalil, a scientist who became coordinator of the Tripoli plan.

Before he fled, Mlegta had spent just under two months working inside the regime, building up a network of sympathizers. At first, 14 of Gaddafi’s officers were prepared to help. By the end there were 72, Mlegta says.

Brigadier General Abdulsalam Alhasi, commander of the rebels’ main operation center in Benghazi, said those secretly helping the rebels were “police, security, military, even some people from the cabinet; many, many people. They gave us information and gave instructions to the people working with them, somehow to support the revolution.”

One of those was al-Barani Ashkal, commander-in-chief of the guard at Gaddafi’s military compound in the suburbs of Tripoli. Like many, Ashkal wanted to defect, but was asked by the NTC to remain in his post where, Alhasi says, he would become instrumental in helping the rebels enter the city.

The rebel planning committee–another four men would join later, making seven in all–knew that the targets on the memory sticks were the key to crippling Gaddafi’s forces. The men included Hisham abu Hajar, chief commander of the Tripoli Brigade, Usama Abu Ras, who liaised with some cells inside Tripoli, and Rashed Suwan, who helped financially and coordinated with the tribes of Tripoli to ease the rebels’ entry.

According to Mlegta and to Hisham Buhagiar, a rebel colonel and the committee’s seventh member, the group initially drew up a list of 120 sites for NATO to target in the days leading up to their attack.

Rebel leaders discussed their idea with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at a meeting at the Elysee Palace on April 20.

That meeting was one of five in Paris in April and May, according to Mlegta. Most were attended by the chiefs of staff of NATO countries involved in the bombing campaign, which had begun in March, as well as military officials from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

After presenting the rebels’ plan “from A to Z”, Mlegta handed NATO officials three memory cards: the one packed with information about regime strongholds in Tripoli; another with updated information on regime sites as well as details of 65 Gaddafi officers sympathetic to the rebels who had been secretly supplied with NATO radiophones; and a third which contained the plot to take Tripoli.

Sarkozy expressed enthusiasm for the plan, according to Mlegta and the senior NTC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The leaders slimmed the 120 targets down to 82 and “assigned 2,000 armed men to go into Tripoli and 6,000 unarmed to go out (onto the streets) in the uprising,” according to rebel colonel Buhagiar.

In the early months of the uprising, pro-rebel fighters had slipped out of Tripoli and made their way to the north-western city of Misrata, where they were trained for the uprising, rebels in Misrata told Reuters in June. The leaders of two rebel units said “hundreds” of Tripoli residents had begun slipping back into the city by mid-July. Commander Alhasi and other rebel officers in Benghazi said the number of infiltrators sent into Tripoli was dozens, not hundreds.

Most of the infiltrators traveled to Tripoli by fishing trawler, according to Alhasi. They were equipped with light weapons–rifles and sub-machineguns–hand grenades, demolition charges and radios.

Although Tripoli was ostensibly under the control of Gaddafi loyalists, rebels said the security system was porous: bribery or other ruses could be used to get in and out. Small groups of men also began probing the government’s security system with nighttime attacks on checkpoints, according to one operative who talked to Reuters in June.

It was possible to smuggle weapons into Tripoli, but it was easier and less risky–if far more expensive–to buy them from Gaddafi loyalists looking to make a profit before the regime collapsed. The going rate for a Kalashnikov in Tripoli was $5,000 over the summer; in Misrata the same weapon cost $3,000.

Morale got a boost when rebels broke into government communication channels and recorded 2,000 calls between the regime’s top leadership, including a few with Gaddafi’s sons, on everything from military orders to sex. The NTC mined the taped calls for information and broadcast some of them on rebel TV, a move that frightened the regime, according to the senior NTC source. “They knew then that we had infiltrated and broken into their ranks.”

Several allied and U.S. officials, as well as a source close to the Libyan rebels, said that around the beginning of May, foreign military trainers including British, French and Italian operatives, as well as representatives from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, began to organize serious efforts to hone the rebels into a more effective fighting force.

Most of the training happened in the rebel-held Western Mountains. But Eric Denece, a former French intelligence operative and now Director of the French Center for Research on Intelligence, says an elite rebel force of fighters from the east was trained both inside and outside Libya, at NATO bases and those of other allies. This “overseas brigade” was then dropped back into the country. In all, estimated Denece, some 100-200 foreign operatives were sent to Libya, where they focused on training and military coordination.

A European official knowledgeable about such operations said “dozens” of plain-clothes French military advisers were sent to Libya. A French official said between 30 and 40 “military advisers” helped organize the rebels and trained them on basic weapons and more high-tech hardware.

In May, the French began smuggling weapons into western Libya. French military spokesmen later confirmed these arms drops, saying they were justified as “humanitarian support”, but also briefing that the aim was to prepare for an advance on Tripoli.

British undercover personnel carried out some of the most important on-the-ground missions by allied forces before the fall of Tripoli, U.S. and allied officials told Reuters.

One of their key tasks, according to allied officials, was planting radio equipment to help allied forces target Gaddafi’s military forces and command-and-control centers. This involved dangerous missions to infiltrate the capital, locate specific potential targets and then plant equipment so bomber planes could precisely target munitions, destroying sensitive targets.

In mid-March, a month after violent resistance to Gaddafi’s rule first erupted, President Obama had signed a sweeping top secret order, known as a covert operations “finding”, which gave broad authorization to the CIA to support the rebels.

But U.S. officials said that, because of concerns about the rebels’ disorganization, internal politics, and limited paramilitary capabilities, clandestine U.S. support on the ground never went much beyond intelligence collection.

In some ways the rebels’ most unlikely ally was Qatar. The Gulf Arab state is keen to downplay its role, perhaps understandably given that it is ruled by an absolute monarch. But on the ground, signs abounded of the emirate’s support. The weapons and equipment the French brought in were mostly supplied by Qatar, according to rebel sources. In May, a Reuters reporter saw equipment in boxes clearly stamped “Qatar.” It included mortar kits, military fatigues, radios and binoculars. At another location, Reuters saw new anti-tank missiles.

By early June, Libya seemed locked in a stalemate. After three months of civil war, rebels had seized huge swathes of territory, but NATO bombing had failed to dislodge Gaddafi. The African Union said the only way forward was a ceasefire and negotiated peace. London joined Paris in suggesting that while Gaddafi must step down, perhaps he could stay in Libya.

But hidden away from view, the plan to seize Tripoli was moving into action.

The rebels began making swift advances in the Western Mountains, out of Misrata and around the town of Zintan. Newly arrived Apache attack helicopters operating from Britain’s HMS Ocean, an amphibious assault ship, were destroying armored vehicles. NATO aircraft dropped leaflets to dispirit Gaddafi forces and improve rebel morale.

“The game-changer has been the attack helicopters which have given the NTC more protection from Gaddafi’s heavy weapons,” a French Defense Ministry official said.

The rebels’ foreign backers were eager to hasten the war. For one thing, a U. N. mandate for bombing ran only to the end of September; agreement on an extension was not guaranteed. One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the main U.S. concern was “breaking the rough stalemate before the end of the NATO mandate”.

The Europeans were also burning through costly munitions and Washington was concerned about wear and tear on NATO allies’ aircraft. “Some of the countries… basically every deployable F-16 they had in the inventory was deployed,” a senior U.S. defense official told Reuters.

There was another boon to the rebels. Regional heavyweight Turkey came out in support of the NTC in July, and then held a conference at which 30 countries backed them. “The Turks actually were very helpful throughout this in a very quiet kind of way,” said the senior U.S. defense official.

With the morale of Gaddafi troops eroding, the end was clearly near. Mediocre at the best of times, Gaddafi’s fighters began fading away.

It was in early August, one mercenary said, that “everything started falling apart.” The force of which he was a part began retreating from a rebel onslaught. “At some point we came under fire from a very organised group, and I suspect they were infiltrated (by) NATO ground troops,” he said. The loyalist units pulled back to a point about 50 km (30 miles) from Tripoli. By mid-August, “I decided it was enough. I took a jeep with plenty of fuel and water and another two Libyans I trusted, and we traveled across the desert to a neighboring country. It took us four days to get there.”

Foreign agents, meanwhile, were circulating far and wide. At the Tunisia-Libya border in early August, a Reuters reporter ran into a Libyan with an American accent who identified himself as the head of the rebel command center in the Western Mountains. He was accompanied by two muscular blond western men. He said he spent a lot of time in the United States and Canada, but would not elaborate.

As the rebels advanced on Zawiyah, the Reuters reporter also saw western-looking men inside the Western Mountain region traveling in simple, old pickup trucks. Not far away, rebels in Nalut said they were being aided by CIA agents, though this was impossible to verify.

Operation Dawn Mermaid was initially meant to begin on August 10, according to Mohammed Gula, the political cell leader in central Tripoli. But “other cities were not yet ready”, the leadership decided, and it was put off for a few days.

A debate flared inside the Pentagon about whether to send extra Predator drones to Libya. Those who backed the use of extra drones won, and the last two Predators were taken from a training base in the United States and sent to north Africa, arriving on August 16.

In the meantime, the rebels had captured several cities. By August 17 or 18, recalls Gula, “when we heard that Zawiyah had fallen, and Zlitan looked like it was about to fall, and Garyan had fallen, we decided now is the time.”

With much of the country now conquered, Predator drones and other surveillance and strike planes could finally be focused on the capital. Data released by the Pentagon showed a substantial increase in the pace of U.S. air strikes in Libya between August 10 and August 22.

The signal to attack came soon after sunset on August 20, in a speech by NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil. “The noose is tightening,” he said. A “veritable bloodbath” was about to occur.

Within 10 minutes of his speech, rebel cells in neighborhoods across Tripoli started moving. In the first few hours, rebel cells attacked installations and command posts. Others simply secured neighborhoods, setting up roadblocks and impeding movement.

Ships laden with food and ammunition set off from rebel-held Misrata. Rebel forces began pushing toward the capital from the Western Mountains and from the east. According to French newspapers, NATO cleared a path on the water by destroying pro-Gaddafi speed boats equipped with explosives.

The first rebel soldiers reached the city within a few hours. The rag-tag army didn’t look like much: some warriors wore football kit bearing the name of English soccer players. But they encountered little resistance.

One rebel source said Gaddafi had made a fatal error by sending his important brigades and military leaders, including his son Mu'atassem, to secure the oil town of Brega. The Libyan leader apparently feared the loss of the oil area would empower the rebels. But it meant he left Tripoli without strong defences, allowing the rebels easy entry.

The air war was also overwhelming the regime. Under attack, Gaddafi forces brought whatever heavy equipment they still had out of hiding. In the final 24 hours, a western military official said, NATO “could see remnants of Gaddafi forces trying to reconstitute weapons systems, specifically surface-to-air missiles”. NATO pounded with them with air strikes.

By Sunday August 21, the rebels controlled large parts of Tripoli. In the confusion, the NTC announced it had captured Saif al-Islam. Late the following evening, though, he turned up at the Rixos, the Tripoli hotel where foreign reporters were staying. “I am here to disperse the rumors…,” he declared.

U.S. and European officials now say they believe Saif was never in custody. NTC chief Mahmoud Jibril attributes the fiasco to conflicting reports within the rebel forces. But, he says, the bumbling turned into a bonanza: “The news of his arrest gave us political gains. Some countries recognized us, some brigades surrendered … and more than 30 officers defected.”

As the Gaddafi brigades collapsed, the rebels reached a sympathizer in the Libyan military who patched them into the radio communications of Gaddafi’s forces. “We could hear the panic through their orders,” said the senior NTC official.

At a press conference in Qatar, NTC head Jibril said Libya would “rehabilitate and cure our wounds by being united so we can rebuild the nation.”

Unity was not hard to find during the uprising. “The most important factor was the will of the people,” commander Alhasi told Reuters. “The people hate Gaddafi.”

Will Libya remain united once he’s gone?

Russia Recognizes Libya Rebels as World Leaders Meet

By Steven Erlanger, NY Times, September 1, 2011
PARIS–As world leaders gathered on Thursday for a major conference to try to consolidate international support and reconstruction aid for Libya, Russia recognized the fledgling rebel government despite its opposition to the NATO bombing campaign.

The conference, on the 42nd anniversary of the coup that brought Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to power, will be attended by the two main leaders of the Transitional National Council and some 60 delegations. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will attend, as will representatives of Russia, China and Germany. Those three countries did not support the NATO operation or criticized it.

Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev had said earlier that Moscow would withhold official recognition until it appeared the rebels could unite Libya under their leadership. Moscow had been pressing for a negotiated settlement of the conflict and on several occasions had dispatched envoys to meet with leaders on both sides.

Russia, joined by China, refused to support sanctions against the Qaddafi regime. Russia had criticized the NATO bombing campaign as overstepping a United Nations resolution aimed at protecting civilians.

On the eve of the conference, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France praised the working of the NATO alliance in support of the rebels, calling it “an indispensable tool” despite Washington’s decision to take a back seat in the war.

Mr. Sarkozy, as ever, was passionate about his government’s accomplishments, both in helping oust the defeated president of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, five months ago, and now Colonel Qaddafi in Libya. He was also defiant about the need to aggressively meet the economic and political challenges of the future. It was vital to act, he said, “not submit.”

Europe must focus more on its military abilities, Mr. Sarkozy said. “President Obama has presented a new vision of U.S. military engagement that implies that the Europeans must assume more of their responsibilities,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “If we don’t draw the necessary conclusions, Europe will wake up to a difficult reality.”

He praised Arab youths’ desire for liberty and democracy, and the ability of French diplomacy to rebound from a late start in support of the Arab Spring. The comments referred to the period in which his country remained supportive of the Tunisian leader, even as he was being toppled, and was slow to recognize the Egyptian revolt.

Mr. Sarkozy seemed slightly distracted as he spoke. A new book charges that a judge heard unsworn testimony from a nurse of the L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt that he received campaign cash from Mrs. Bettencourt in 2007, a charge that the Élysée Palace denied fiercely.

Waves of Disinformation and Confusion Swamp the Truth in Libya

By David D. Kirkpatrick and Rod Nordland, NY Times, August 23, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya–Truth was first a casualty in Libya well before this war began, and the war has not improved matters at all, on any side.

In Libya, as with authoritarian governments generally, leaders are accustomed to dictating how people should think; no matter how outrageous the lie or how obviously bizarre (as was often the case in Libya), it is often received as reality by a public numbed by isolation and oppression. So it may not be surprising that the rebels now challenging Colonel Qaddafi sometimes sound like him. Many of the rebels’ leaders were in Colonel Qaddafi’s top echelons, helping defend and promote his vision, and version, of reality.

A case in point was the rebels’ claim on Sunday that they had arrested Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the leader’s son who is often talked of as the heir apparent. The claim was issued with such authority, even setting off a debate among rebels over what to do with the younger Mr. Qaddafi, that the International Criminal Court said he should be transported to The Hague.

By the wee hours of Tuesday morning, however, Mr. Qaddafi was squiring journalists around neighborhoods filled with Qaddafi sympathizers, saying the rebels who had rolled into the city had fallen into a trap.

Information, or rather truthful information, is often difficult to come by in any war zone. Disinformation is a powerful tool that can be used to mislead the enemy, hide tactics, instigate fear or win public support. There is also the fog of war, the confusion in communications and the chaos of the battlefield that can obscure any objective understanding.

But in Libya, with so many competing factions and overlapping agendas–Qaddafi loyalists, competing tribes, western guerrillas, eastern rebels, NATO allies–all of that is true, to an exceptional degree.

By sunrise, it seemed that the younger Qaddafi’s claim of having sprung an elaborate trap was just another lie, as rebels poured into Colonel Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound.

“It’s a timely reminder that Twitter, 24-hour rolling news channels and satphones are still useless against the fog of war,” Rob Crilly of The Daily Telegraph of London wrote on Tuesday.

During the six months of fighting, both the rebels and Colonel Qaddafi’s forces repeatedly overstated or misrepresented their battlefield abilities and accomplishments. The rebels said they had seized cities, only to be pushed back hours or days later; on Tuesday, Colonel Qaddafi’s forces insisted that they controlled Tripoli. In the early days of the NATO intervention, optimistic claims about the rebels’ capacities and battlefield gains seemed intended to reassure queasy domestic audiences that a quick victory was possible.

One day before rebels invaded Colonel Qaddafi’s compound, a NATO spokesman, Col. Roland Lavoie, was asked where the Libyan leader might be hiding.

“I don’t have a clue,” he said at a news conference in Italy, offering an answer with the ring of truth.

Then he added, perhaps less convincingly, “I’m not sure it really does matter.”

The examples of spin from all sides provide one of many echoes in Libya of the war in Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein. For months after Mr. Hussein slipped into hiding, the American military had insisted that his capture was unimportant–until, of course, they captured him and promptly distributed images of him having lice picked from his hair. Officials were jubilant.

When the Americans rolled into Baghdad, they did so with what turned out to be a false justification–that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction.” That claim was so deeply accepted by the troops that they packed gas masks and spent much of the critical first weeks looking for unconventional weapons, rather than controlling looters, which was one of the Iraqi grievances that later fed an insurgency.

Sometimes it is hard to tell if the people spreading the information believe it themselves. “There are no American infidels in Baghdad–never,” Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, Mr. Hussein’s prevaricating minister of information, said long after American troops had entered the city.

Was this disinformation? Self-deception?

When it was no longer possible to deny their presence, after American troops had reached the center of the city, Mr. Sahhaf had a ready reply. “They’re coming to surrender or be burned in their tanks,” he said.

Unlike Iraq, the misinformation in Libya has sometimes taken on the feel of a comic opera.

When the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi began, he blamed Al Qaeda and youths “fueled by milk and Nescafé spiked with hallucinogenic drugs.” When that did not get enough traction, he said of the rebels: “They feel trigger happy, and they shoot especially when they are stoned on drugs.”

His maladroit spokesmen at one point showed journalists what they said were 36 million doses of confiscated hallucinogens–which proved to be Tramadol, a common painkiller.

Still, the rebels have offered their own far-fetched claims, like mass rapes by loyalist troops issued tablets of Viagra. Although the rebels have not offered credible proof, that claim is nonetheless the basis of an investigation by the International Criminal Court.

And there is the mantra, with racist overtones, that the Qaddafi government is using African mercenaries, which rebels repeat as fact over and over. There have been no confirmed cases of that; supposedly there are many African prisoners of war being held in Benghazi, but conveniently journalists are not allowed to see them. There are, however, African guest workers, poorly paid migrant labor, many of whom, unarmed, have been labeled mercenaries.

Both sides, of course, pronounce victory as a certainty.

In the case of Mahmoud Jibril, the rebel prime minister, it is just a little late. “The total collapse of the regime could materialize in the next few weeks,” he said during a visit to Washington in May.

Libya 'Mercenary' Claim Turns Spotlight on Special Ops

Reuters, September 20, 2011
BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters)–A boast by Gaddafi loyalists that they had captured 17 foreign mercenaries this week has been greeted with scepticism, but the claim has highlighted the importance of covert military operations in the overthrow of the Libyan leader.

Gaddafi’s spokesman Moussa Ibrahim has so far not made good on his promise to put the group on television and he has produced no other evidence to back his story, which was quickly denied in Western capitals.

The whole thing may turn out to be no more than a bold piece of disinformation by a spin doctor with nothing to lose. But it still fits in with a compelling narrative surrounding the secret side of Libya’s war.

“This claim is coming from Moussa Ibrahim and a good proportion of what he has been saying is flat-out wrong,” said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

In focussing on “mercenaries,” Ibrahim has chosen an issue that, in its broadest terms, has been seen as crucial in the tortuous struggle to topple Gaddafi.

Ibrahim’s use of the word may have been intended as a reference to special forces employed as private military contractors to provide “a degree of deniability,” Joshi said.

While they received a boost from NATO-led air strikes against Gaddafi’s army, rebel forces were for months unable to make much progress on the ground. This is where Western special forces provided vital assistance to the often disorganised revolutionaries.

In World War Two, Libya was the birthplace of Britain’s Special Air Service, or SAS, which ranged over the desert to destroy German aircraft, supply dumps and railway links.

Early special forces experience in today’s Libya was less successful. A group of British diplomats, reported to have included special forces soldiers, was humiliatingly captured near Benghazi during an attempt to make contact with rebel forces.

Since then, special forces operations appear to have been more productive, involving personnel from Britain, France, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, according to media reports.

Rebel units in Tripoli were secretly armed so they could rise up and help take the capital, while British agents infiltrated the city to deploy radio equipment to help target NATO air strikes in a way that would avoid civilian casualties.

France sent dozens of military advisers to organise and train the rebels. France also delivered arms to the rebels that had been supplied by Qatar.

Reuters correspondents in the field report having seen apparent evidence of foreign special forces on the ground, although their activities were never made clear. Rebels, whose accounts could not be confirmed, also spoke of assistance from CIA agents.

Heisbourg said that with Gaddafi on the run, it was now time for foreign special forces to start leaving Libya as quickly as possible as they risked getting caught up in internecine quarrels within the forces loyal to Libya’s new transitional government.

While details have emerged of what special forces had done earlier in the conflict–assistance with weapons and tactics, acting as forward air controllers for NATO bombers and providing weapons to rebel forces in the Western Mountains–it was not clear what they might be doing now.

“People who know are not going to say and people who say obviously don’t know,” Heisbourg said.

Sirte--the Apotheosis of "Liberal Intervention"

Craig Murray, former British ambassador, Aug. 28, 2011
There is no cause to doubt that, for whatever reason, the support of the people of Sirte for Gadaffi is genuine. That this means they deserve to be pounded into submission is less obvious to me. The disconnect between the UN mandate to protect civilians while facilitating negotiation, and NATO’s actual actions as the anti-Gadaffi forces’ air force and special forces, is startling.

There is something so shocking in the Orwellian doublespeak of NATO on this point that I am severely dismayed. I suffer from that old springing eternal of hope, and am therefore always in a state of disappointment. I had hoped that the general population in Europe is so educated now that obvious outright lies would be rejected. I even hoped some journalists would seek to expose lies.

I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

The “rebels” are actively hitting Sirte with heavy artillery and Stalin’s organs; they are transporting tanks openly to attack Sirte. Yet any movement of tanks or artillery by the population of Sirte brings immediate death from NATO air strike.

What exactly is the reason that Sirte’s defenders are threatening civilians but the artillery of their attackers–and the bombings themselves–are not? Plainly this is a nonsense. People in foreign ministries, NATO, the BBC and other media are well aware that it is the starkest lie and propaganda, to say the assault on Sirte is protecting civilians. But does knowledge of the truth prevent them from peddling a lie? No.

It is worth reminding everyone something never mentioned, that UNSCR 1973 which established the no fly zone and mandate to protect civilians had “the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution;”

That is in Operative Para 2 of the Resolution

Plainly the people of Sirte hold a different view to the “rebels” as to who should run the country. NATO have in effect declared being in Gadaffi’s political camp a capital offence. There is no way the massive assault on Sirte is “facilitating dialogue”. it is rather killing those who do not hold the NATO approved opinion. That is the actual truth. It is extremely plain.

I have no time for Gadaffi. I have actually met him, and he really is nuts, and dangerous. There were aspects of his rule in terms of social development which were good, but much more that was bad and tyrannical. But if NATO is attacking him because he is a dictator, why is it not attacking Dubai, Bahrain, Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, or Uzbekistan, to name a random selection of badly governed countries?

“Liberal intervention” does not exist. What we have is the opposite; highly selective neo-imperial wars aimed at ensuring politically client control of key physical resources.

Wars kill people. Women and children are dying now in Libya, whatever the sanitised media tells you. The BBC have reported it will take a decade to repair Libya’s infrastructure from the damage of war. That in an underestimate. Iraq is still decades away from returning its utilities to their condition in 2000.

I strongly support the revolutions of the Arab Spring. But NATO intervention does not bring freedom, it brings destruction, degradation and permanent enslavement to the neo-colonial yoke. From now on, Libyans like us will be toiling to enrich western bankers. That, apparently, is worth to NATO the reduction of Sirte to rubble.

Guns, migrants, mercenaries: Qaddafi's loss is the Sahel's gain

By Drew Hinshaw, Christian Science Monitor, September 15, 2011
Dakar, Senegal–Leaders from the Saharan nation of Niger, yesterday requested international aid to curb the flow of migrants, militants, and guns across their desert border with Libya.

Turmoil in post-Qaddafi Libya, say Nigerien officials, residents, and analysts, could augur an explosion in violence and unemployment across Libya’s sub-Saharan flank. The neighborhood is occupied by some of Africa’s least peaceful, most impoverished countries.

Africa’s Sahel, a drought belt that stretches from Senegal to Somalia, “has long had a wild west quality to it,” writes former US Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn in an e-mail to the Monitor.

It is the stage on which semi-nomadic Tuareg combatants have fought sporadically for independence over decades; failing that, many have linked up with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist sect that kidnaps foreigners. The Mali-based Al Qaeda, reports claim, begun collaborating as recently as last month with Boko Haram, the Nigerian pro-Sharia law rebellion that took credit for an August 26 bombing on a United Nations headquarters.

Further east, the militia Al Shabab has seized large swaths of the Somalia’s south. In Ethiopia, rebels and state troops continue gun battles in Ethiopia’s gas-rich Ogaden region. On Sunday in Darfur, the site of Sudan’s mass killings, the separatist region’s top rebel leader returned from nearly two years in exile, in Libya.

“The region can’t get more unstable than it already is,” says London’s School of Oriental and African Studies Professor Jeremy Keenan, who performs hostage negotiation for conflicts in the region.

And yet, it might, he and other analysts agree.

Aside from sparking a “mass movement of one million people plus”–sub-Saharan Africans who sought migrant work in oil-rich Libya–the end of the country’s conflict could send a southward wave of thousands of dejected Libyan fighters, including Nigerien Tuaregs, and sub-Saharan mercenaries hired by Libya’s ex-leader Muammar Qaddafi, says J. Peter Pham, Director of the Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

“The consequences are enormous,” editor David Yacouba for newspaper Aïr Info in the Nigerien desert town of Agadez writes in an e-mail to the Monitor. “What we fear is that, after this conflict, the arms used in Libya will come into Niger.”

Libyan weaponry, however, has likely already entered black markets throughout the Sahel, Pham said, citing “direct knowledge” of RPG 29s for sale as far east as Somalia. RPG 29s are the shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades deployed by the Soviets in the final days of their Afghan war, powerful enough to stop a tank.

Aside from arms, Keenan adds, there’s Mr. Qaddafi’s army.

A Sept. 5 convoy that drove southward into Niger was reported to contain anywhere from a handful of vehicles to 250 trucks, loaded with pro-Qaddafi combatants fleeing Libya.

The arrival of thousands of armed fighters into such a poorly-policed region, Pham says, could be a boom to the local Al Qaeda group.

“All of a sudden, right on their door step, and in a buyer’s market, here comes a whole flood of trained fighters,” Pham says.

For Niger, the more persistent problem, Pham adds, may be unemployment.

Migrant workers comprised as much as a fifth of Libya’s resident population, according to estimates from the Nigerien and Malian governments. As fighting eases and roads become safe for travel, hundreds of thousands of these migrants may return home, fleeing both Libya’s shaken economy, and the random arrests of black Africans–accused of being mercenaries–documented by Human Rights Watch.

“These people will be confronted by unemployment,” Yacouba writes.

Formal, salaried work is almost non-existent in Niger, whose 15 million people largely live off farming or herding on the increasingly dry land.

“These people coming back into regions whether there’s no employment, no likelihood of employment, famine, and some of them are coming back with arms,” Keenan says.

On Saturday, Guinea-Bissau–a former Portuguese colony that enjoyed lavish Libyan aid, and receives most of its income from the cocaine trade–invited Qaddafi to take up residence. Burkina Faso also extended Qaddafi protection, only to retract the offer later.

“His presence would be a major cause for continued chaos and instability,” Keenan says, citing Qaddafi’s connections to rebels in the region, and his capacity to bankroll them.

The more likely outcome, he adds, is that Qaddafi remains in Libya, in its south–beyond the reach of Libya’s National Transition Council, beyond the reach of NATO, and far beyond the reach of Niger.

“You could have a situation where Libya divides, not into an East-West division, but where the south never falls under the control of the NTC,” he says. “The NTC doesn’t have forces down there. Niger’s army is lightweight. NATO can’t get down there in any hurry.”

“There could still be another chapter,” he adds.

Britain's SAS Leads Hunt For Gaddafi

By Thomas Harding, Gordon Rayner, Damien Mcelroy; Telegraph, London; Washington Post; Agence France-Presse, August 26, 2011
LONDON: British special forces are on the ground in Libya helping to lead the hunt for Muammar Gaddafi.

As a $1.6 million bounty was placed on his head, soldiers from 22 SAS Regiment began guiding rebel soldiers after being ordered in by the Prime Minister, David Cameron.

For the first time, defence sources have confirmed the SAS has been in Libya for several weeks, and played a key role in co-ordinating the battle for Tripoli.

Hardened fighters streamed into Tripoli yesterday as Libya’s rebels sought to deliver a knockout punch to Gaddafi’s diehards and to flush out the elusive strongman, dead or alive.

Rebel commanders said they were also preparing fresh attempts to advance against Gaddafi’s forces in his home town, Sirte, 360 kilometres east of Tripoli, and to break a siege of Zuwarah, a town to the west.

With most of the capital in rebel hands, the SAS soldiers, who have been dressed in Arab civilian clothes and carrying the same weapons as the rebels, have been ordered to switch their focus to the search for Gaddafi.

Libya’s National Transitional Council has promised an amnesty to any of his inner circle prepared to betray his whereabouts.

Rumours about Gaddafi’s whereabouts are flying around Tripoli: he’s holed up in a network of tunnels linking the Rixos Hotel, his Bab al-Aziziya compound and the sea; he’s at his farm near the international airport; he’s hiding among the animals at the Tripoli zoo, which is in a park that lies between the compound and the hotel, an area still under loyalist control.

Rebel commanders said they assume Gaddafi is still in the capital, most likely in one of the last few enclaves where his supporters are putting up fierce resistance.

With pro-Gaddafi forces resisting in Tripoli and in loyalist towns, including Sirte, the transitional council and its NATO allies made urgent appeals for the swift capture of the former leader and his family.

NATO has ordered all available surveillance aircraft, including British spy planes, to focus on tracking Gaddafi.

The jubilation that followed Tuesday’s rout of his headquarters in Bab al-Aziziya has given way to the reality of a guerilla battle for the suburbs of Tripoli that are still held by Gaddafi’s supporters.

With snipers trying to kill anyone using the ports and airports, aid agencies have been unable to deliver supplies of medicines, food or water, and hospitals in Tripoli have been overwhelmed with casualties.

NATO's Debacle in Libya

By Alexander Cockburn, Counterpunch, July 15, 2011
After three and a half months of bombing and arms supply to various rebel factions, NATO’s failure in its efforts to promote “regime change” in Libya is now glaring.

Obviously NATO’s commanders are still hoping that a lucky bomb may kill Gaddafi, but to date the staying power has been with the Libyan leader, whereas it is the relevant NATO powers who are fighting among themselves.

The reports from Istanbul of the deliberations of NATO’s Contact Group have a surreal quality, as Secretary of State Clinton and British foreign minister Hague gravely re-emphasize their commitment to regime change and the strengthening of ties to the Transitional Council in Benghazi, while the humiliation of the entire NATO expedition is entering the history books as an advertisement of the dangers of political fantasy in the service of “humanitarian interventionism”, appalling intelligence work, illusions about bombing and air power, and some of the worst press coverage in living memory.

Take British prime minister David Cameron. He can thank Rupert Murdoch, even the wretched Andy Coulson for one ironic blessing. His appalling misjudgment and obstinacy in hiring former News of the world editor Coulson has so dominated British headlines these past days that an equally staggering misjudgment in the international theater is escaping well-merited ridicule and rebuke.

When Cameron vied with French president Sarkozy in early March in heading the charge against Qaddafi, no murmur of caution seems to have disturbed the blithe mood of confidence in Downing St. It was as though Blair’s blunders and miscalculations in Iraq, endlessly disinterred in subsequent years, had never been.

Cameron, like Sarkozy, Clinton and Obama presumably had intelligence assessments of the situation in Libya. Did any of them say that Gaddafi might be a tougher nut to crack than the presidents of Tunisia or Egypt, might even command some popular support in Tripoli and western Libya, historically at odds with Benghazi and the eastern region? If they did, did they pay any attention?

The Western press, along with al-Jazeera, was no help. The early charges of Gaddafi committing “genocide” against his own people or ordering mass rapes were based on unverified rumor or propaganda bulletins from Benghazi and have now been decisively discredited by reputable organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Any pretensions the International Criminal Court might have had to judicial impartiality has been undermined by the ICC’s role as NATO’s creature, rushing out indictments of Gaddafi and his closest associates whenever NATO’s propaganda agenda has demanded it.

The journalists in Benghazi became cheerleaders for what was from the start plainly a disorganized rabble of disparate factions. The journalists in Tripoli were reluctant to file copy which might be deemed by their editors as “soft” on Gaddafi, a devil figure in the West for most of his four decades in power. America’s pwogwessives exulted that at last they had on their hands a “just war” and could cheer on NATO’s bombardiers with a clear conscience and entertain fantasies about the revolutionary purity of the rebels.

All history shows that the dropping of thousands of bombs and missiles, with whatever supposed standards of “pin point accuracy”, never elicits the enthusiastic support of civilians on the receiving end, even if a certificate of humanitarian assistance and merciful intent is stamped on every projectile. Recent pro-government rallies in Tripoli have been vast. Libya has a population of about six million, with four million in Tripoli. Gaddafi barrels around the city in an open jeep. Large amounts of AK-47s have been distributed to civilian defense committees. Were they all compelled to demonstrate by Gaddafi’s enforcers? It seems unlikely.

This last week the western press excitedly relayed the news that a handful of prisoners were denouncing Gaddafi. Well, if you were a prisoner with rebel guns pointed at your head, would you proclaim your fidelity to the prime target of their fury, or murmur that you had been dragooned into unwilling service? Isn’t this an item from Journalism 101. Are they “black mercenaries” or Libyans from the south who happen to be black and members of Gaddafi’s militias?

Another pointer to NATO’s misjudgments has been the heavy-handed dismissal of charges from African, Russian and even leaders of NATO countries such as Germany that the mandates of two UN security council resolutions passed in February and then March 17–protection of civilian populations–were being brazenly distorted in favor of efforts to kill Gaddafi and install the ramshackle “provisional government” in Benghazi–a shady bunch from the getgo.

In early March, Sarkozy, languishing in the polls, believed the counsel of “new philosopher” Bernard-Henri Lévy, after the latter’s March 6 excursion to Benghazi, that Libya and its oil were up for grabs. On March 11 Sarkozy took the precipitate step of recognizing the Benghazi gang as the legitimate government of Libya and awaited Gaddafi’s collapse with a confident heart.

In a hilarious inside account of the NATO debacle, Vincent Jauvert of Le Nouvel Observateur has recently disclosed that French intelligence services assured Sarkozy and foreign minister Juppe “from the first [air] strike, thousands of soldiers would defect from Gaddafi. They also predicted that the rebels would move quickly to Sirte, the hometown of the Qaddafi and force him to flee the country. This was triumphantly and erroneously trumpeted by the NATO powers which even proclaimed that he had flown to Venezuela. By all means opt for the Big Lie as a propaganda ploy, but not if it is inevitably going to be discredited 24 hours later.

"We underestimated al-Gaddafi ,” one French officer told Jauvert. “He was preparing for forty-one years for an invasion. We did not imagine he would adapt as quickly. No one expects, for example, to transport its troops and missile batteries, Gaddafi will go out and buy hundreds of Toyota pick-up in Niger and Mali. It is a stroke of genius: the trucks are identical to those used by the rebels. NATO is paralyzed. It delays its strikes. Before bombing the vehicles, drivers need to be sure they are whose forces are Gaddafi’s. ‘We asked the rebels to a particular signal on the roof of their pickup truck, said a soldier, but we were never sure. They are so disorganized …’”

When collapse did not arrive on schedule the French government breezily confirmed earlier this month it was shipping and air-dropping dropping arms supplies to Libyan rebel groups. We can safely assume Britain has its own clandestine operations in train, though the capture of the SAS/MI6 unit by Libyan farmers was not an inspiring augury.

The NATO coalition is now falling apart, though disclosure of this development has been muted to non-existent in the US press. French defense minister Gerard Longuet gave an interview at the end of last week to a French tv station saying that military action against Libya has failed and it is time for diplomacy: “We must now sit around a table. We will stop bombing as soon as the Libyans start talking to one another and the military on both sides go back to their bases.’ Longuet suggested that Gaddafi might be able to remain in Libya, 'in another room of the palace, with another title’.”

If Longuet’s startling remarks were for local consumption on the eve of an Assembly vote, it clearly came as a shock to Cameron and Secretary of State Clinton. To heighten the impression of a civil war in NATO Cameron and Clinton rushed out statements asserting the ongoing goal of regime change, and that Gaddafi’s departure was a sine qua non, as demanded by the Benghazi gang.

But Berlusconi, his country the objective of tens of thousands of refugees from the fighting and from economic dislocation in Libya is now saying he was against the whole NATO adventure from the start. He may decline to renew in the fall current basing agreements in Italy for the NATO intervening powers. Germany has always been unenthusiastic. Initially, France and Britain nourished hopes of close military liaison but that soon collapsed for all the usual reasons–inertia, suspicion and simple incompetence.

Sarkozy’s suspicions of Germany and Turkey were apparently so intense, according to Le Nouvel Observateur, that he called for the sidelining the Turkish and German officers present in the command structure of NATO, on the grounds that they could undermine the war given Berlin and Ankara’s distaste for the whole exercise. Normal guidelines dictate that when the supreme commander of NATO, an American general and his No. 2, a Briton, are on leave, the No. 3, is to be a German. Sarkozy had this sequence nixed.

Obama has been playing a double game, reflective of domestic pressures and political priorities. At the start, the rush to the UN Security Council was very much Secretary of State Clinton’s initiative. In political stature early to mid-February Obama was at his nadir. There was growing talk of a one-term presidency. Clinton rushed into what she perceived as a tempting vacuum, perhaps even began to entertain some hopes of accelerating Obama’s decline and proffering herself as a potential contender in 2012. Obama, still fighting the “wimp” label, swiftly endorsed the NATO mission and defied challenges as to its constitutional propriety. Clinton soon thereafter announced she was not particularly interested in staying in national politics after 2012.

In terms of equipment the US has been crucial. According to one French general cited by Le Nouvel Observateur, “33 of 41 tanker aircraft used in the operation are American, most of the AWACS as well, all the drones as well, as 100 per cent of anti-radar missile and laser guidance kits for bombs. And that’s not all. The main means of command and control of NATO as the huge bandwidth for transmitting all the data is American.” The Director of Military Intelligence, General Didier Bolelli, revealed that over 80 per cent of the targets assigned to the French pilots in Libya was designated by U.S.! “They give us just enough so that we do not figure we were breaking,” says one diplomat.

Even if Obama is in fact wholeheartedly for regime change in Libya the political temperature here does not favor the sort of escalation–hugely costly and much against the public mood–required in the wake of the failure of the bombing campaign.

In sum, we on the left should rejoice that a simple colonial smash and grab is currently in a shambles, with serious long-term consequences for NATO’s credibility and pretenses to respect for international law.

What next? The air is thick with speculations about a brokered settlement, salted with hopeful bleats from the Americans and British that Gaddafi is on the verge of collapse, that he is running out of fuel, that the rebels are tightening the noose around Tripoli, that the Russians re brokering some sort of a face-saving deal. It seems a better bet to recognize that after four and a half months, NATO and the interventionists are being humiliated.

Anti-Gaddafi Forces Distrustful of Western Reporters

Time, Jul 1, 2011
As the push to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi has stalled, journalists have increasingly borne the brunt of the frustrations of Libya’s rebels. Although the foreign press was eagerly welcomed just months ago, reporters in rebel-controlled areas have recently been harassed and intimidated. Officials of the rebel-led National Transitional Council (NTC) have steadily begun to treat correspondents as hostile elements: some have been prohibited from filming bomb scenes; others have been accused of being spies.

In several incidents in the months following the February uprising against Gaddafi, rebels have prevented journalists from recording events they consider embarrassing. For example, when a skirmish erupted in March after one fighter ordered another to stop firing an antiaircraft gun outside the town of Brega, which is about 130 miles (210 km) west of the rebel capital, Benghazi, other rebels kept correspondents from filming the incident. On another occasion, journalists were prevented from photographing a rebel who accidentally shot himself in April near Ajdabiyah, approximately 95 miles (155 km) west of Benghazi.

In Benghazi, reporters face similar restrictions. In April, a man barged into a press conference featuring the rebels’ military chief of staff, Abd al-Fattah Yunis, and accused the former Gaddafi loyalist of persecuting the Libyan people for 40 years. After the intruder was rushed from the conference hall, journalists were barred from following him and were forced to remain in the room. In June, rebels prevented reporters from filming a car that exploded in a hotel parking lot in Benghazi.

In recent weeks the NTC has intensified pressure on journalists, with most of the intimidation occurring in the rebel enclave of Misratah, 117 miles (188 km) from Tripoli, the capital. Officials there accused reporters of being “spies” and working for “outside powers.” They prevented journalists from traveling to the front and began vetting them, even though the reporters had already registered with the NTC Media Center in Benghazi and had been approved to work in all rebel-controlled areas of Libya. Suspicion has fallen particularly heavily on those correspondents from non-English-speaking countries, because Misratah’s officials cannot read their foreign-language articles on the Internet. A Polish correspondent was accused of not being a “real” journalist because he took a number of pictures and no one there could understand his published pieces.

Officials in Misratah have stipulated that foreign correspondents can use only “approved” translators, a condition the NTC has not imposed in other areas under its control. In addition, journalists are being hassled about the subject of their articles. In June, one correspondent asked a media official to help arrange meetings with prisoners captured from Gaddafi’s forces; the official chastised him and suggested that he instead visit civilian amputees wounded by Gaddafi fighters. When asked why he was muzzling coverage, the official responded, “I am the new Gaddafi! I control everything here!” Another writer was accused of being a spy because his questions had vexed a Misratah official.

Some NTC officials sought to discount events in Misratah by blaming battlefield conditions. Privately, NTC officials concede that the actions of their counterparts in Misratah are somewhat justified. “We can’t discount that Gaddafi has spies operating in our midst,” says a military official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The rebels have already apprehended foreigners they believe were working for Gaddafi. In May they detained a group of French security contractors, claiming they were relaying military information to Gaddafi’s forces in Tripoli.

Others, however, believe the problem lies with Libyans’ unfamiliarity with Western journalistic standards. “Many here just don’t understand how journalists behave,” says Salah al-Senoussi, a professor of political science. “When journalists challenge the politicians, they believe there is some hidden agenda. Journalists are seen as enemies because they want information politicians don’t want to give up.”

And with Western reporters eager to learn why the rebels are faltering at the front and how they plan to resolve the dilemma, the NTC’s frustrations with journalists are not likely to subside anytime soon.

Many in Surt, Libya, don't trust revolutionary forces

By Ruth Sherlock, Los Angeles Times, October 3, 2011
Surt, Libya–As fighters loyal to Libya’s revolutionary government gain on the holdout city of Surt, residents are making it clear that the battle for hearts and minds is far from won.

The scrublands that surround Moammar Kadafi’s hometown have become a confused patchwork of loyalties. As vehicles of the revolutionary forces patrolled the dusty villages in newly seized territory Sunday, many residents peered angrily from their homes.

“The rebels are worse than rats. NATO is the same as Osama bin Laden,” said a father, his seven children crowding around him.

Surt has been a primary target in the seven-month NATO bombing campaign that helped rebel forces gain control of most of Libya. The intensity of the bombing, coupled with recent rocket attacks by the opposition forces, has turned Surt into a “living hell,” several families said.

Hundreds of families fled the city Sunday, anticipating a new assault. But too frightened, angry or mistrustful to flee to opposition-controlled territory, many sought refuge in nearby loyalist homes.

“We have 10 families staying with us now,” said the angry father, who, like many others, declined to be identified for fear of recrimination. “There is little food, not enough clean water and no gas. Before, we lived wealthy lives. I had two homes. Now we live worse than animals.”

Fleeing families also set up home in an abandoned school, crammed 30 people to a room, sleeping on the tile floor.

Revolutionary leaders say they are supported by a mandate to oust a brutal dictator. But many residents from Surt said they longed for Libya to be “just as it was” before the uprising began in February.

“We lived in democracy under Moammar Kadafi; he was not a dictator,” said another Surt resident, Susan Farjan, who said she had been an on-screen journalist for Libyan state television. “I lived in freedom; Libyan women had full human rights. It isn’t that we need Moammar Kadafi again, but we want to live just as we did before.”

Splits and confusion have appeared among some of the refugees. In the abandoned school, as some women shouted for Kadafi, others hissed and professed their support for the rebels.

“We are a one-family democracy,” joked Mohammed Farjan, 25.

Though his parents decry the fall of the regime, Farjan said he had been against Kadafi since before the uprising. He said authorities had offered him thousands of dollars to stop a Facebook campaign against the longtime leader.

Internet service was cut after the eruption of mass protests in February, he said. Then he and three colleagues played “hide and seek” with regime forces, leaving anti-Kadafi graffiti on Surt’s walls, he said.

The vast majority of city’s 100,000 people didn’t like Kadafi, he alleged. “But when the bombing started, most began to support him again,” he said.

In Libya, a long-dead hero rises again in east

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2011
Benghazi, Libya–In eastern Libya, the spectral image of an elderly, bearded man in a skullcap or Bedouin cloak is everywhere–on bumper stickers and posters, military vehicles and checkpoints, even press IDs issued by the rebel government here.

“He is the godfather of all of us,” said Salim Ismael, a retired army officer now training rebel recruits. “He is our inspiration, the spiritual leader of the Libyan revolution.”

The figure is Omar Mukhtar, a 20th century resistance hero executed by Italian occupiers 80 years ago–and, improbably enough, depicted in a 1981 Hollywood all-star epic, “The Lion of the Desert,” starring Anthony Quinn as Mukhtar. A box-office flop, the film has a devoted following here.

“General, bring me back Mukhtar!” Rod Steiger, playing Benito Mussolini, bellows to a subordinate before dispatching him across the Mediterranean. “Bribe him or break his neck.”

Mukhtar is a kind of Libyan Che Guevara, another doomed revolutionary, but without the Cold War baggage and crass commercialization.

Here in the east, where he based his guerrilla war so long ago, Mukhtar has displaced the once-omnipresent likeness of Moammar Kadafi, who has been relegated to crude caricatures as a murderer, madman and Zionist stooge.

The clashing iconography says much about the profound changes that have swept this North African nation in just a few months.

Libyan insurgents are fighting a war for control of their vast, oil-rich country, and a humble teacher-turned-freedom fighter who swung from the gallows long before most people here were born has come to epitomize it all.

Even Kadafi embraced Mukhtar–up to a point.

The Libyan leader put his image on the 10-dinar note and, in a rare display of modesty, placed his own face on the 1-dinar bill.

Kadafi also financed much of the $30-million cost of “The Lion of the Desert,” a kind of Arab “Ben Hur” filmed mostly in the Libyan desert and Rome. The two-hour-40-minute film features almost nonstop battle sequences: exploding tanks, assaults on horseback, a blown-up bridge or two. The central protagonists are Mukhtar and Rodolfo Graziani (played by Oliver Reed), the Italian general who shares Il Duce’s drive to restore the triumphs of the Caesars.

Even though the general and Mukhtar are implacable adversaries, the cultured Italian comes to acknowledge a grudging respect for the Libyan.

“This old man is good,” Graziani sighs after observing through field glasses as Mukhtar’s men on horseback wipe out an entire Italian column in a brilliant desert ambush.

After Mukhtar is captured, the two rivals finally meet in the general’s elegant offices in Benghazi. The captive dismisses an offer to become an Italian pensioner.

“Money, like glory, is not permanent,” Mukhtar says. “We will never surrender. We win or we die.”

You will be hanged publicly the following day, the general declares.

“The rope of your justice is always hanging in front of me, general,” Mukhtar replies.

Mohammed Omar Mukhtar Omar, 90, is the sole surviving son of Mukhtar. He lives in a modest Benghazi home where the walls feature likenesses of his father, including a famous, sepia-toned photo of him in chains, appearing serene, even knowing what awaits him.

As a child, the younger Mukhtar recited the Koran with his father before being sent away to Egypt to escape the violence. Fighting on horseback and often hiding in caves, his father and his bands of mujahedin battled a modern, mechanized army that utilized air power, tanks and artillery. Incredibly, the relentless Mukhtar held off the Italians for 20 years, despite a punishing occupation that featured mass detentions and frequent hangings.

Mukhtar was approaching 80 (his exact age is a matter of dispute) when he was finally captured by the Italians in the mountains east of Benghazi.

Soon enough, World War II ended Il Duce’s colonial ambitions, along with his life, and Libya went from colony to a U.N. mandate government to independence in 1951, under King Idris. The king, an ally of Mukhtar, erected a public monument and mausoleum honoring him near the Mediterranean harbor in downtown Benghazi. The memorial became a locus of religious and nationalist pilgrimage.

Then in 1969, a young army officer named Kadafi led a rebellion against the king and abolished the monarchy. Kadafi paid homage to the legacy of Mukhtar, scheduling one of his first major addresses on the anniversary of his execution.

But by 2000, the aging Kadafi decided he didn’t like the prominent shrine in restive Benghazi, a place where his rule was never popular. Without consulting Mukhtar’s family, the son says, Kadafi had the monument torn down and the remains moved 40 miles away, to the sleepy burg of Suluq, where a more modest memorial stands.

The self-titled “transitional” government now running much of eastern Libya is making plans to erect a new monument to Mukhtar in its previous site downtown, now a patch of overgrown weeds.

On Sept. 16, 1931, the Italians had ordered hundreds, possibly thousands, of Libyans to witness Mukhtar’s hanging in Suluq, then the site of a massive detention camp.

“As for me,” Mukhtar assures the general in the film, “I will live longer than my hangman.”

And so he has.

NATO Commander Says Resilience of Qaddafi Loyalists Is Surprising

By Eric Schmitt, NY Times, October 10, 2011
WASHINGTON–The commander of NATO’s air campaign in Libya has said that hundreds of organized fighters loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi pose a “resilient and fierce” threat in the two remaining pro-Qaddafi strongholds.

In the coastal city of Surt and the desert enclave of Bani Walid, pro-Qaddafi snipers on rooftops and loyalist gunmen in pickup trucks remain in control.

General Jodice said a mix of African mercenaries and Qaddafi loyalist troops have successfully sustained command-and-control and supply lines in staunch defense of the cities, despite a NATO air campaign that is now in its seventh month and a multipronged ground assault in Surt by anti-Qaddafi fighters.

“It’s really been quite interesting how resilient and fierce they’ve been,” General Jodice said in a telephone interview on Sunday from his command center just north of Bologna, Italy. “We’re all surprised by the tenacity of the pro-Qaddafi forces. At this point, they might not see a way out.”

General Jodice’s comments, coming on Sunday as former rebel fighters battled their way into the heart of Surt and then were driven back by sniper and mortar fire, tempered the boasts of anti-Qaddafi forces that Surt would soon be theirs and once again underscored the limitations that have confronted NATO throughout the air campaign.

“The ability of NATO to affect the fighting inside the city is small,” said a senior NATO diplomat on Monday who was not authorized to speak on the record. “The fight now is really between the forces on the ground.”

While General Jodice and other NATO officials said that the stiff resistance in the two cities did not threaten to spread to other parts of Libya, it does underscore the need for the alliance’s continued military involvement.

The United States is still flying an array of surveillance planes and remotely piloted Predator drones, particularly near Surt. But General Jodice said there was no coordination or intelligence-sharing between NATO and the anti-Qaddafi fighters, though British and French special forces troops, among other advisers on the ground in Libya, have for months helped train the former rebels and provided them with intelligence.

Daily life begins to return to Libya's Misrata

By Ryan Lucas, AP, May 23, 2011
MISRATA, Libya (AP)–Less than two weeks after wresting itself free from a brutal siege and pushing Moammar Gadhafi’s forces out of rocket range, the rebel-held city of Misrata is taking its first steps toward normalcy.

The city, the only major urban center in western Libya under rebel control, was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between government troops and rebels since the Libyan uprising began Feb. 15. The ferocity of the struggle over Misrata’s fate is stamped across the downtown streets–the charred hulks of tanks, the pockmarked and blown-out buildings, the sand berms strewn across intersections.

The rebels expelled the last of Gadhafi’s troops from the city, gaining a bit of breathing room. Since then, the city’s beleaguered residents have moved quickly to bring back at least a semblance of daily life shattered during the siege. Electricity is being restored, many of the once ubiquitous checkpoints have been taken down, and the availability–and variety–of food is improving.

“Things are getting better,” said 26-year-old Zarouk Tanashi at his shoe store near the city’s center. “Shops are opening, there are people buying things and people are on the streets again, even families.”

Misrata, situated near Gadhafi’s stronghold in the capital of Tripoli, is a powerful symbol for both sides. Other rebel strongholds are in the east.

Gadhafi’s troops laid siege to Misrata in mid-March, pounding the city of 600,000 for weeks with rockets, mortars and tank shells. Hundreds of people–civilians and combatants alike–were killed in the fighting before the rebels pushed out the last government troops. The front lines now lie at least 13 miles (20 kilometers) outside the city, leaving the heart of Misrata out of range of Gadhafi’s heavy weapons and pushing the fighting to outlying areas.

One of the top priorities since the siege lifted has been restoring electric power to homes, bakeries and hospitals. The power grid was never fully knocked out across Misrata, but extensive damage to the system from shelling left most of the city dark during the siege.

One of the city’s main power stations was destroyed and two others heavily damaged. As a result, power supplies dropped to around 15 percent of normal levels, said Hassan Sagayer, a senior official with the power company.

In the past two weeks, engineers have scrambled to bring online a power generator located at a steel plant on the south side of the city, and it now supplies around 60 megawatts of power to homes, bakeries and hospitals, Sagayer said. It meets about 60 percent of the city’s needs, he added. Factories, however, are a secondary concern and remain shuttered.

At the Misrata Polyclinic, the city’s main hospital and an early target of shelling by Gadhafi’s forces, the smell of fresh paint fills the halls as volunteers slap on a final coat on the now glistening white walls. Dusty gurneys, office chairs and desks sit in a pile outside the main entrance and litter the corridors inside.

Salem, an electrical engineer who is helping repair the clinic, said about 90 volunteers have fixed the facility’s emergency generator, patched up the damage from shelling to the roof and walls and replaced blown-out windows.

“We’ve been at it almost three weeks now,” said Salem, who asked not to provide his last name for fear of reprisals against family living in territory under Gadhafi control. “We expect to hand the clinic over to health authorities this week.”

The strain on food supplies also appears to be easing. Vegetable vendors have returned to street corners and the supply of many goods, while still far short of the days before the uprising, has improved.

“A month ago, there was nothing,” said vendor Abdullah Sadi, 42, as he surveyed the heaps of fresh carrots and tomatoes, red onions and potatoes that covered the tables in his shop. “We were open the whole time, but there was nothing to sell, everything was out. Now it’s coming back a bit.”

The same can be said for all of Misrata.

Thousands Fleeing Qaddafi Bask in Tunisia's Hospitality

By Scott Sayare, NY Times, April 28, 2011
TATAOUINE, Tunisia–A century ago, fleeing Italian colonizers, the inhabitants of Libya’s remote western mountains descended upon this wind-whipped Tunisian outpost, many to stay permanently.

With those desert plateaus once again under siege, this time by the armies of the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, about 30,000 Libyans have repeated their ancestors’ flight. Astonishingly, to aid workers, hundreds upon hundreds of Tunisians, some of them the descendants of those earlier refugees, have opened their homes to these Libyan families since early April, when Colonel Qaddafi’s forces went on the attack.

There are no sprawling refugee camps at the border, just two modest clusters of tents housing around 2,500 people. The vast majority of the newcomers are now living with Tunisian families here and in neighboring villages, an area that in normal times counts just 150,000 residents.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen such an impressive response,” said Firas Kayal, a spokesman in Tunisia for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That generosity is all the more remarkable, he added, given the challenges Tunisia faces in the wake of its own revolution–which in January ended 23 years of kleptocratic rule by President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali–and previous waves of Libyan refugees this year in the north.

Even some of the refugees seem baffled by it.

“Would you give your house to someone you didn’t know, from another country?” asked Maren Abouzakhar, 22, who fled the besieged Libyan city of Yafran early this month. She spoke in the airy drawing room of the house she and 10 relatives now shared with a local family; the owner had moved himself, his wife and their three children into the unfinished ground floor, leaving the comfortable, perfumed second story for their guests.

“We don’t even know how to thank them for something like this,” Ms. Abouzakhar said.

Abdallah Awaye, 35, a thin, sun-darkened man and the owner of the house, described his gesture as a matter of obligation and pride. “This is how it is, these are our customs,” he said. “If there is something to eat, we will eat it together. If there is nothing to eat, we will have nothing together.”

Most of the refugees arrived at the border with little more than the clothes on their backs, and were rapidly taken in by local residents whose compassion and good cheer have drawn the admiration of Libyans and international aid workers alike.

Mr. Kayal also praised the generosity of the Tunisian government, which has kept the country’s borders open from the start of the Libyan conflict. As many 276,000 people–most of them foreign workers–have fled Libya for Tunisia, according to United Nations estimates.

Asked about their willingness to provide shelter to strangers, residents of Tataouine like to cite an apt local proverb: Travelers cry upon arriving in this desolate place, but leave with tears in their eyes.

Despite the abundance of good intentions, though, the city and surrounding areas are feeling the strain of so many refugees. The afterglow of January’s jubilant revolution has largely given way to old frustrations, with people complaining of a stagnant economy, inadequate infrastructure and widespread unemployment.

The police, the lackeys of the deposed government, are largely absent from the streets, having gone into hiding after the revolution. And many worry that the country’s transitional government has failed to break with what they call decades of neglect for the arid Tunisian south.

“Generosity and fraternity have been taking precedence over the problems,” said Ali Mourou, the mayor of Tataouine.

Nevertheless, he said, in response to appeals from the city, truckloads of aid have flowed in from as far as Tunis, the capital, 300 miles to the north.

Three local coordinating centers have been opened, placing Libyan families in homes and distributing donated couscous, macaroni, milk and tomatoes, as well as mattresses and blankets. Libyan children have been placed in local schools, and doctors and nurses have opened a clinic offering free medical care.

“We’ve taken the thing as a human obligation, a religious obligation, an obligation of fraternity,” Mr. Mourou said, and the Libyans have been “truly appreciative.”

He added, “They ought to be.”

Are Libyan rebels being led by a CIA plant?

The Week, March 31, 2011
Until recently, Khalifa Hifter–who’s leading the anti-Gadhafi forces–lived five miles from CIA headquarters in Virginia. Coincidence?

Now leading Libya’s ragtag army of rebels, Khalifa Hifter has a mysterious past that’s raising provocative questions. Once a top commander in Moammar Gadhafi’s own army, he left its ranks after a disastrous campaign in Chad, then moved to a home five miles from CIA headquarters in northern Virginia, where he lived from the early 1990s until mid-March, 2011. What happened during those 20 years in the U.S.? Hifter’s lifelong friend Abdel Salam Badr reports only that Hifter somehow supported a large family. With the CIA mingling among the rebels, some commentators are wondering: Is Hifter a CIA plant?

Hifter is pretty clearly CIA: So a former top chief in Gadhafi’s army is allowed to settle in the U.S., soon after the Lockerbie bombing, says Patrick Martin in Axis of Logic, then spends 20 years “about five miles from CIA headquarters in Langley,” with no apparent job? “To those who can read between the lines,” that’s enough to conclude that Hifter is a CIA operative. Need more proof? “Even a cursory Internet search” ties Hifter to the CIA as far back as 1987.

We shouldn’t be using covert operatives: There’s no need for the U.S. to play games, says John Gizzi in Human Events. As Paul Wolfowitz told me, the CIA shouldn’t be involved, simply because “we should be right out in the open” in our dealings with the rebels. Let’s not “reinforce the notion in the Middle East that the CIA is behind everything the Americans do.”

The bigger issue: Can Hifter win? He cuts something of an odd figure for a military commander, wearing “a pinstripe suit and a black turtleneck sweater” instead of battle fatigues, say Alexander Marquardt and Mark Mooney in ABC News. And he incorrectly predicted that Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte “would fall easily”. Despite Hifter’s status as “self-proclaimed commander of the Free Libyan Army,” it isn’t clear that he’s actually commanding the fleeing rebel forces. The only certainty is that somebody needs to “whip his army into shape.”