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Libya's major opposition forces united beneath tricolour rebel flag Add to ...

As dictator Moammar Gadhafi finds himself penned in to Tripoli with a dwindling band of supporters, he must be asking himself a question shared by much of the world: Just who are the rebels and revolutionaries who are tightening the noose around him and preparing to take control of Libya?

An answer began to emerge as an increasingly organized group of former military officers, youth protest leaders and veteran opposition figures issued their first unambiguous statement from their makeshift headquarters in the captured eastern city of Benghazi: "Tripoli is our capital, and it is currently under siege."

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This signalled not only their intention to launch a combined assault on Tripoli that will likely be Colonel Gadhafi's final battle. Equally important, it signalled that the major opposition forces are united beneath the green, black and red rebel flag, that their interim government in Benghazi does not have separatist ambitions, and that their goals are broadly political, not religious or tribal.

Unity among the opposition could be the fatal blow for Col. Gadhafi, who has tried desperately in recent days to divide protesting forces along tribal, religious, regional, political, racial and demographic lines by launching appeals and offering money to some groups and using propaganda to demonize others or associate them with al-Qaeda.

But it is worth looking closely at the people marching out of Benghazi toward Tripoli to understand the nature of this very unusual Arab revolution and the possible shape of a post-revolutionary Libyan society and government.

We do not know exactly how many forces Col. Gadhafi's opponents now have, but reports emerging from Libya suggest it could be almost an even match. Most of Libya's army of 80,000 or so active military personnel, never well-organized at the best of times, has reportedly deserted. Arabic media have estimated that Col. Gadhafi now has between 8,000 and 15,000 security forces loyal to him, almost all in regiments commanded by his sons, plus an unknown number of African mercenaries he has recently hired. The opposition controls 5,000 soldiers, has some heavy artillery, and includes an unknown but possibly large number of volunteer fighters.

Based in Benghazi are a number of opposition groups, some traditional and some utterly new, who have managed to find common cause against Col. Gadhafi.

Most prominent are the youth leaders who launched the uprising that began on February 15. They seem to have emerged from nowhere, though the scope of their anger and their numbers should not be surprising: More than 50 per cent of Libya's 6.5 million people are under 18 years of age, and unemployment is high.

They were joined this week by a second group: Military officers, cabinet ministers and civil servants who have defected from Col. Gadhafi's authoritarian government and joined the movement. After launching a successful but deadly attack on the Benghazi air force base, they became leaders. The "interim government" in Benghazi is now commanded by Mustafa Mohamed Abud Ajleil, who until last Monday was Libya's justice minister.

Also among their ranks are likely members of several established opposition groups.

These include leaders of Libyan tribes that have traditionally been opposed to Col. Gadhafi's rule - most notably the Warfalah tribe, which was subject to a violent purge by Col. Gadhafi in 1993.

This led some to worry that the seizure of the eastern third of Libya last week would lead to the creation of a secessionist state with Benghazi as its capital. This wouldn't be surprising: Until the 1930s, the three major Libyan provinces of Tripolitania in the northwest, Fezzan in the southwest and Cyrenaica in the east were independent kingdoms, and Cyrenaica has always had a distinct culture and politics.

They appear to have abandoned or postponed this goal. But they may have been joined by other opposition groups that have threatened the Libyan state during the 42 years since Col. Gadhafi seized power in a military coup.

One of these is the Libyan Constitutional Union, a group which formally _ but no longer _ represents those still loyal to the monarchy which ruled the country from its independence from Italy in 1951 until Col. Gadhafi's coup. Its leaders include Mohamed Ben Ghalbon and Muhammad as-Senussi, a great-nephew of the last king of Libya, who has been speaking out against Col. Gadhafi from the United States.

Another is the National Conference of Libyan Opposition, which unites the groups who opposed the 1969 coup; most of its members are Libyan expatriates living in exile. While it has had a prominent voice from the United States and its leader Ibrahim Sahad has made angry statements calling for the dictator's ouster this week, it has little visible presence within Libya.

Opposition groups that include anti-regime fighters exiled in Africa include the National Front for the Salvation of Libya and the Libyan National Army, both of which attempted coups and assassinations against Col. Gadhafi in the 1980s. To the extent that these groups are still viable, they likely are contributing forces to the opposition.

Finally, there are the Islamist groups that have repeatedly tried to challenge Col. Gadhafi, whose rule has wavered between socialist secularism and Gadhafi-led Islam, neither of which have pleased fundamentalists. A Libyan branch of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was subject to a bloody purge by Col. Gadhafi in 1987 and sibling groups have suffered severe repression.

Islamic politics have been absent from any of the statements or leadership lists of the revolutionary group, but they could end up taking a role in a future opposition. Their politics could put them at odds with a number of the other groups, whose goals are purely secular.

For the moment, though, there is a moment of unity: In Benghazi, and in strings of rebel-controlled cities stretching to the east and west of the capital, the tricolour flag is uniting a wildly disparate group of people in a common desire to be rid of the man whose portrait has hung on every Libyan wall for four decades.

Editor's Note: The Libyan Constitutional Union is no longer monarchist. Its chairman is Mohamed Ben Ghalbon, not Muhammad as-Senussi. Mr. as-Senussi is a great-nephew, not the son, of the last king of Libya. Incorrect information on all these points appeared in the original newspaper version of this article and in an earlier online version. This online version has been corrected.

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