12:01am

Thu March 10, 2011
Africa

Gadhafi's Military Muscle Concentrated In Elite Units

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has deliberately kept his army weak in recent years, but he has bolstered elite forces that are personally loyal to him, Italian analysts say.

As the former colonial power in Libya, Italy has maintained a close interest in the country. The Italian intelligence services are relatively well informed about what's happening there; an Italian intelligence report on Gadhafi's military strength was recently presented to Parliament.

"We know very little, but we know one thing: His military machinery is not so big," says analyst Alessandro Politi.

After international sanctions on Libya were lifted in 2004, Gadhafi was able to refurbish his country's weapons systems, Politi says. But fearing a coup, Gadhafi kept the regular army relatively weak.

"The real nucleus of his security is around the presidential guards, mercenaries and a few other elite units who were directly controlled by his family and his tribe or his money," Politi says.

Tribal Loyalty

Along with an unknown number of foreign mercenaries, there are said to be four elite brigades with a total of some 10,000 men. One stands out: the 32nd Armored Brigade under the command of Gadhafi's son, Khamis. It's estimated to have 4,000 to 5,000 highly trained and very loyal fighters, armed with Russian-made tanks and rocket launchers.

Military analyst Carlo Jean says the other elite brigades are composed of members of the Libyan leader's tribe and another tribe loyal to him.

"Keep in mind that Gadhafi's tribe, the Gadhafa, is made up of a million people, as is that of the other tribe loyal to him, the Warfala," Jean says.

After seizing power in 1969, Gadhafi went on a spending spree — buying thousands of tanks, armored vehicles and cannons; hundreds of aircraft; and four submarines. In 1979, the mainly desert country with a population at the time of 2.5 million owned more fighter planes than Great Britain.

Libya had also stored 1,000 metric tons of Semtex, a key element of terrorist bombs in the 1980s.

With an army of some 50,000 men and highly sophisticated weapons — and with the dream of forging pan-Arab unity — Gadhafi launched three wars over two decades and lost them all.

Another Spending Spree

The Libyan army was demoralized, as was Gadhafi himself. His biographer, Angelo Del Boca, says the Libyan leader felt his people had not understood the utopian project he had laid out in his Green Book.

"When I last saw Gadhafi, I asked him how successful his Green Book had been in Libya. He said, sadly, 'It was a total failure. Libya is still dark, not green as I had hoped,' " Del Boca says.

For Gadhafi, Del Boca says, "dark" meant a country still riven by tribal loyalties. But with the army no longer trustworthy, tribal loyalties became key to Gadhafi's own political survival.

And with Libya's return to the international stage seven years ago, Gadhafi again went on a spending spree for his elite brigades.

"Libya is chock full of weapons, but we don't know how well they're maintained," says Jean, the military analyst. "Today, Ukrainians do the maintenance, but they're not as skilled as the East Germans were during the Cold War."

Italian analysts believe Gadhafi is still in control of his military machine and has reserves of tanks and artillery. He can continue to order airstrikes on rebel positions, but analysts say Gadhafi does not seem to have the logistical support to push eastward, into rebel-held territory.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.