Tue, Apr 05, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Libyan uprising appears stalemated

As US planes wind down their strikes, those inside the conflict — and many outside — ponder their next move

By Peter Beaumont and Chris McGreal  /  The Guardian, LONDON and BENGHAZI, LIBYA

Illustration: Yusha

For weeks, Libya’s revolutionary leadership has spoken almost in awe of the soldiers who defected from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s army and who would lead the rebel assault to bring him down.

And for weeks, the disorganised civilian volunteers who have rapidly advanced and almost as swiftly retreated along a few hundred kilometers of desert road have awaited the arrival of these professional soldiers to turn around the revolution’s fortunes.

Finally, some made an appearance for the first time at the frontline near Brega. They appeared disciplined, well armed and under command — a stark contrast to the free-for-all of the civilian rebel militia.

However, there were no more than a few dozen of them and the question still remained: Where were the thousands of experienced soldiers that the revolutionary leadership had so often invoked to bolster morale? Did they exist?

While the revolutionary governing council has appealed to foreign governments for larger weapons to confront Qaddafi’s tanks and artillery, it has become increasingly apparent that the real issue for the rebels is a lack of discipline, experience and tactics. Even where they have had the advantage, they have been outmaneuvered in large part because there has been no plan for attack or defense. Instead, the young rebels, full of bravado, charge forward only to turn and flee when they come under fire, often conceding ground.

Some of the rebels have been crying out for leadership. The revolutionary government’s de facto finance minister, Ali Tarhouni, was confronted by civilian members of the rebel militia demanding to know who was going to take charge of military strategy on the ground after claiming that there are 1,000 trained fighters among the rebels.

On Friday, two of the senior rebel defectors from the Qaddafi regime — former Libyan interior minister Abdel Fattah Younes and former armed forces head Khalifa Haftar — made an appearance at the front to be greeted like heroes.

Wearing sunglasses and a red and green scarf around his neck, Younes toured the frontline near the port of Brega, shaking hands with the crowd of volunteers who formed around him firing their weapons in the air.

While their visit boosted morale at a time when the rebels have been in retreat once again, a more important question remains — whether these men, who have avoided the frontlines for their own reasons, can turn the war around. Starting last weekend, it is not who is fighting that is the question, but who will no longer be fighting, with the US announcement that its warplanes will no longer carry out bombing raids. Even before the US decision, the number of air strikes, mandated by UN Security Council resolution 1973, had been sharply diminishing.

On Friday, NATO announced that coalition aircraft had flown 74 strike missions the previous day, down almost a quarter from earlier in the week. Of those missions, US aircraft flew only 10. And that number of strikes looks likely to decline as responsibility passes largely to the UK, France and Canada.

Among the aircraft being withdrawn are the A-10 Thunderbolts and AC-130 gunships that have been used with such devastating impact against Libyan armor.

The slowing of the coalition mission has only helped to contribute to a growing sense that the conflict in Libya is stumbling into a new and uncertain phase, marked not by the strengths of the opposing sides, but by a realization of their weaknesses.

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