Libya’s rebels have triumphed. So why does the war continue? Those still loyal to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi must know that their leader will never regain control of the country, although he has managed to avoid falling into rebel hands.
Even if it’s a losing battle, many loyalists appear willing to keep fighting – gun battles were reported in several Tripoli neighbourhoods on Tuesday, and the rebels have been slow to gain control in a broad swath of the country that stretches roughly 500 kilometres southeast from the capital into Col. Gadhafi’s desert strongholds.
It’s difficult for journalists to report from pro-Gadhafi enclaves, but one of the few safe places to have a quiet conversation with a loyalist fighter is inside rebel prisons; earlier this month, The Globe and Mail spent two days interviewing inmates at a makeshift detention facility in Misrata, a former school that housed about 240 people captured by the rebels.
Only two of the inmates were non-Libyans; most of them came from nearby towns and cities that continue to resist the rebel forces. In those places, anti-rebel sentiment was so strong that Col. Gadhafi’s forces armed the young men and organized them into informal militias – a dark mirror of the rebels’ volunteer brigades. Like the rebels, they drove pickup trucks with machine guns mounted at the rear. Another similarity was their penchant for giving heroic names to their armed gangs: the Zliten Knights, the Gadhafi Fedayeen, or the endless number of groups named after young men killed in battle.
Perhaps their most important common attribute was the belief that they faced a monstrous enemy. Young men said they wore bullets on strings around their necks so they would always have enough ammunition to kill themselves before being captured by the rebels, whom they assumed to be brutal. The macabre jewellery was not purely symbolic: Ezzaldin Hmuda, 37, eased himself painfully out of a wheelchair in a rebel clinic and explained that several of his comrades had committed suicide rather than fall into rebel custody.
“I tried to kill myself as well, but the gun jammed,” he said.
The Council on Foreign Relations, a leading U.S. think tank, recently listed continued violence by pro-Gadhafi loyalists as one of the biggest potential threats to the rebels’ transition to a new government. “Like Saddam Hussein, Gadhafi may have prepared for foreign invasion and could possibly mount a ‘stay-behind’ operation,” wrote Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University.
The persistence of that threat will depend largely on the motivation of young men like Mr. Hmuda. Just before Col. Gadhafi lost control of state television on Monday night, he broadcast an impassioned call to arms for loyalist fighters, specifically naming several settlements – Tarhuna, al Khums, Bani Waled, and others – where rebels continued to struggle for control on Tuesday. In the same speech, Col. Gadhafi hinted that Tripoli could “burn like Baghdad,” raising the spectre of an extended insurgency against the victorious rebels.
The rebels already faced such local resistance in some towns on the way to Tripoli; in Zliten, 150 kilometres east of the capital, gangs of young men armed only with wooden sticks confronted the rebels as they advanced last month.
Ali al-Duratiya, 33, a former food distribution clerk who now holds religious study sessions for the inmates at Misrata’s prison, said the rebels initially captured many soldiers loyal to Col. Gadhafi, but in recent weeks started picking up more young loyalist volunteers from the battlefield.
“The locals give tips to the Gadhafi troops, they host the soldiers in their houses,” Mr. al-Duratiya said. “As we go further west, it becomes a bigger problem.”