Settling Old Scores Tribal Rivalries Complicate Libyan War

The rebels in western Libya have captured the Nafusa Mountains and are only 80 kilometers from Tripoli, but have been unable to advance further. Meanwhile long-simmering tribal hostilities are complicating the situation, as rival groups clash and old resentments flare up. The inter-tribal conflict adds to a growing sense that the uprising against Gadhafi is turning into a civil war.

By in Qawalish, Libya


The decisive front in the war against Moammar Gadhafi runs through the dusty village of Qawalish, which consists of a mosque, a few dozen houses and a hill, behind which rebel fighters are entrenched.

At first glance, it is hard to understand why more than 15 rebels have been killed in this godforsaken place, and why Qawalish has changed hands three times in only two weeks.

Musbah Milad, a rebel fighter from the city of Zintan in northwestern Libya, is standing on the roof of a two-story building in the midday heat. He gazes out at the flat landscape and points to a row of trees at the other end of a vast plain. "There you can see him," he says. "Fucking Gadhafi." Through his binoculars, Milad can make out two trucks hidden in the shade of trees, about 6 kilometers (4 miles) away. Sometimes Gadhafi's forces fire a poorly targeted missile, prompting the rebels to return fire.

The fate of the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi is being decided in these days and weeks in tiny villages in the Nafusa Mountains of western Libya. The region was almost unknown to the world before the Libyan revolution began in February.

Loosely Organized State

Since the outbreak of the war, the rebel offensive has made more significant advances in these hilly highlands than anywhere else in Libya. In the eastern part of the country, the rebels are still entrenched near Brega, a city they captured for the first time in February, only to lose it to Gadhafi's forces soon afterwards. Brega is more than 600 kilometers from the capital Tripoli.

In the west, on the other hand, the rebels have captured almost the entire mountain chain, where they have established a loosely organized state, complete with its own newspapers, a radio station and a makeshift airfield. The territory they control extends 200 kilometers eastward from the Tunisian border. And at the northern end of the Nafusa Mountains, the rebel fighters are now only 80 kilometers from the capital.

But the most important front lies in Qawalish. If the rebels manage to advance into the next town, which is 30 kilometers away, they will have cut off Gadhafi's key supply route, the road from Sabha to Tripoli.

However, the rebels have not made any progress in weeks. After taking Qawalish in early July, they were so heady with victory that they left the front and returned to their villages, leaving only a few 16-year-olds with Kalashnikovs in the village. Their mission was to hold the town, but the small rebel contingent didn't stand a chance when Gadhafi's troops attacked on Wednesday of the week before last.

In the ensuing six-hour battle, the rebels mobilized all of their forces to return to the front that they had so foolishly exposed. Troops rushed back to Qawalish from Zintan, Jadu and Kikla. By the end of a bloody day, they had regained control over the village, despite heavy rocket fire. Eight men died. It was a strange battle, and it showed how little Gadhafi's opponents in western Libya understand about waging battles. The rebel force there consists of a motorized horde that rushes to the front when it is needed and then quickly disperses.

Since then, the rebels have done nothing to advance farther to the east.

Limits of Their Strength

When Ramadan begins in a week, the fighters will not be allowed to eat or drink anything during the day, at temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade. Some say that they are holding back because Gadhafi's forces have left thousands of mines in the vast steppe, while others say that the rebels are trying to spare the pro-Gadhafi civilians in the next town.

There are also signs that the rebels in the west are gradually reaching the limits of their strength. Even their military leaders in Zintan admit that there are no plans to advance from the mountains in the coastal plain and hazard a march on Tripoli. Instead, they are waiting for a revolt in the capital. And on Sunday, they had to rebut another hard-fought attempt by Gadhafi's troops to take back the town.

The truth is that the uprising against Gadhafi is looking more and more like a civil war every day. At first, it seemed as if Libyans had all come together to revolt against the man who had controlled the country for the last 42 years. Much like the uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan revolt began in mid-February with peaceful protests, but this dictator refused to allow himself to be toppled and responded by waging a cruel war on the civilian population instead. This response was the reason behind the NATO mission.

But reality is more complicated than that, as evidenced in the Nafusa Mountains. The situation in Libya is made more difficult by the fact that it is a tribal society, not a nation state like its neighbors.

Most Libyans may be strongly opposed to Gadhafi, and yet there are still important tribes that largely support him, including the Warfalla, the Tarhuna and Gadhafi's own tribe, the Gadhadhfa. And despite the rebels' official claims to the contrary, this conflict is also a war among tribes.

Warmhearted

The rebels were so successful in the mountains because most of the tribes there are hostile to Gadhafi. The Berbers in the western part of the mountains, the country's original inhabitants, have liberated their traditional areas in recent months. Under Gadhafi, they were prohibited from speaking their own language. Most of the rebels in the eastern part of the mountains are Arabs, members of the Zintan tribe and its allies.

Zintan is their key city, the center of the rebellion in the west. Most of the rebel fighters are from Zintan, as are most of the dead. It is a small city with a population of about 25,000, a maze of narrow streets where canisters of gasoline smuggled from Tunisia are sold, but where bread is hard to find these days. There are no women to be seen, but there are bearded men who show off their weapons and drive makeshift combat vehicles. The people of the town are as warmhearted as they are rough around the edges. They give food to outsiders, even though it is in short supply, and no one would think of demanding payment for accommodations.

The military council, the nominal leadership of the rebel army in the west, has its headquarters in Zintan. Last week, Omar Hariri, the military coordinator of the Transitional National Council, came to visit Zintan to talk about strategy. But many rebels from the town refuse to take direct orders from such officials. Instead, their allegiance lies with their local command center.

It is Gadhafi's army that has committed the heinous war crimes in this conflict. Nevertheless, a trip along the road that extends for 50 kilometers from Zintan to the front in Qawalish reveals that the rebels' behavior is not always exemplary.

Looting and Arson

Several towns along the route are now completely depopulated. One is Awaniya, a town of 15,000 people until the rebels captured it. The shops lining the highway in Awaniya were looted and are now littered with garbage. In some stores, even the shelves are missing. In the town itself, houses stand empty and ransacked, and some have been burned down. Other towns look similar. New houses are still burning days after the rebels took over, and trucks are removing anything that was overlooked during the initial looting: sacks of wheat as well as food and sheep.

A piece of graffiti on the wall of an empty supermarket in Awaniya berates the "Mashashiya traitors." The Mashashiya are the tribe that lived in Awaniya and two other nearby towns. Most of its members supported Gadhafi, as did the inhabitants of most of the remaining depopulated towns along the road from Zintan to the front, including Qawalish.

In a report, Human Rights Watch has sharply criticized the rebels for engaging in looting and arson. In an interview, a spokesman for the western Libyan military council admits that there have been isolated incidents of this nature, but he also insists that the rebels only set those houses on fire in which Gadhafi's troops had been holed up.

The rebels respond aggressively to anyone who tries to investigate. A SPIEGEL team was taken into custody in Awaniya, escorted to the Zintan command post and interrogated.

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