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Facing Deadlock, Libyan Rebels Struggle To Regroup

A Libyan rebel observes at a front-line checkpoint near Zwitina, the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, eastern Libya, on Thursday.
Anja Niedringhaus
A Libyan rebel observes at a front-line checkpoint near Zwitina, the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, eastern Libya, on Thursday.

In key Libyan cities, anti-government rebels have been unable so far to dislodge forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi, despite help from airstrikes and a no-fly zone from the Western coalition. Yet the rebels' provisional body is moving ahead with efforts to build a political structure to better define what the revolution stands for.

Meantime, there's creeping fear and paranoia in the rebel capital that people loyal to Gadhafi are trying to undermine those efforts through violence and intimidation.

On the road outside Ajdabiya, the rebel supply lines are mostly nonexistent, battlefield communications are improvised at best, and it's never clear whether anyone is really in charge. About the only thing that is clear is an enduring fighting spirit: Forty-year-old Mohammed Hadiya left his construction laborer job to take up arms against Gadhafi.

"We worry about our brothers in Ajdabiya and Misurata," he says, "and God willing tomorrow — maybe the day after tomorrow — we'll not only liberate those towns but move westward, you'll see."

With a mix of hope and desperation, rebels and their supporters for weeks have talked about the possibility that a force of better trained and equipped soldiers in the east who defected during the uprising and are sitting out the fight will — any day now — show up and give the disorganized rabble of fighters the tactical boost they need.

But there is no force waiting in the wings. The only cavalry charge has already come in the form of U.S. and European airstrikes. Newly appointed rebel Finance Minister Ali Al Tarhouni, a U.S.-educated economist who just left his comfortable job teaching at the University of Washington to return to Benghazi after more than three decades in exile, admits that the provisional government's work "was and remains very chaotic."

"We have to get our house in order," he says. Tarhouni thinks the semi-trained soldiers who defected are already deployed out there and number only about 1,000.

"They don't have any airplanes. I don't think they have any heavy armaments. So whatever it is that you saw is still heavily dependent on these young people," he says.

The rebels' military chief of staff is former Libyan Interior Minister Gen. Abdul Fateh Younis, a lifelong confidant of Gadhafi who came to the rebel side at the start of the uprising last month.

Asked whether he is comfortable working with a man who spent his career loyal to Gadhafi, Tarhouni pauses for a long time and says, simply, "I'm not sure that we have somebody better."

While the rebels lack military organization and strategy, the political side of things is more cohesive. On Wednesday, they announced the creation of a provisional "government" with Mahmoud Jibril as prime minister, and three others appointed to top ministerial posts in a shadow government. Jibril is another U.S.-educated Libyan with close ties to the West.

Asked if declaring a government might be premature given that the rebels barely control half the country and face a military stalemate, spokesman Mustafa Gheriani insists that the move was necessary.

"We hoping this transitional government will be recognized by the outside world officially, OK, where we can sell our oil, we could have a central bank, we could have things to keep moving," Gheriani says.

But things are not moving in the right direction on the battlefield for the rebels, and even in their stronghold of Benghazi, there are serious problems. Most stores remain closed. There are some shortages of food and other goods. Crime is on the rise. And sporadic, middle of the night clashes continue between small groups of loyalists and rebel supporters.

Libyan Dr. Ashraf Milad, a surgeon, says he is not sure anymore whom he can really trust. He says there is still serious fear that sleeper cells of Gadhafi loyalists are trying to undermine the work of the provisional government and its supporters.

"I'm not afraid to die with bullet. I'm not afraid. But I am afraid of the people who stay with us and are with Gadhafi," Milad says.

Tarhouni, the U.S. professor turned revolutionary, concedes that any battlefield stalemate and security problems in the rebel capital will harm the provisional government's effectiveness. But he says confidently that Gadhafi is increasingly isolated, low on money and has almost no international recognition.

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.