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.
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.
Gadhafi Played Off Tribes Against Each Other
To explain the hostility between the Mashashiya and the Zintan, a visit with the council of elders in Zintan is helpful. It is a group of more than a dozen old men in white robes. The men hold their meetings in an administrative building in the center of the town, sitting in a circle.
They say that the Mashashiya did not own the land they had inhabited and where they had built their houses, and that it was land that they had stolen from other tribes, including the Zintan, the Khaleifa and the Kikla. According to the Zintan elders, the Mashashiya are shepherds, as their name, which means "Walkers," signifies. They have never owned land and are not from the area. Instead, they are from southern Libya.
The elders say that the Mashashiya supported Gadhafi because he gave them the land in the region in the 1970s. They also say that Gadhafi bred discord in their valleys to play off the tribes against one another and safeguard his own power.
The men speak of old deeds of ownership from the Italian period, deeds that allegedly prove which established tribes own the land. They also mention maps drawn by the former French colonial rulers in Algeria, which show the large tribal territory of the Zintan and make no mention of the Mashashiya.
"We've known about the tricks of the Mashashiya for a long time," says one man. "Sometimes they would move into empty houses, set up gravestones nearby and claim that their ancestors were buried there. They worked as informers for the Italians during the colonial period."
'They Should Stay Out of Here'
The people in Zintan say that the Mashashiya benefited under Gadhafi while the Zintan suffered from neglect. The hostility between the two tribes has simmered beneath the surface for decades. There was no intermarriage between members of the two tribes, they avoided each other and sometimes they went to court over land disputes. Then the revolution erupted and the Mashashiya declared their support for Gadhafi.
The elders in Zintan say that they had negotiated three times with the Mashashiya elders since April, and that the latter had agreed to remain neutral. But Gadhafi's soldiers apparently used Awaniya as a base for their tanks, firing Grad rockets from there at the civilian population of Zintan and the surrounding villages for months. The tribes have been at war with each other ever since.
The Mashashiya will only be allowed to return if they can prove that the land belongs to them, but it doesn't, say the Zintan elders. Many of the rebels are more direct, saying that they don't like the Mashashiya and that "they should stay out of here."
On the rebel side of the front, there are no longer any members of the tribe who could be asked about these accusations. The only remaining Mashashiya are in the Zintan prison, a former school. One of the two men interviewed admits that most members of his tribe are for Gadhafi, but the other one denies it. Both of the two men insist that they did not fight for Gadhafi. They say that they are only in prison because of their tribal affiliation.
Returning to Libya to Fight
Nevertheless, the military leaders of the western rebels still insist that all Libyans are fighting Gadhafi together and are careful not to portray the rebellion as a tribal matter. To be sure, these tribal disputes are not the basis of the rebellion against Gadhafi's dictatorship. All it takes to understand why the rebellion occurred is to look at the uneven distribution of oil wealth in the country, the poor outlook for young people, nepotism and brutal repression by the regime.
But the tribal structure is one of the key reasons why Gadhafi is still in power. He knew how to play the tribes against one another, and many derived benefits from him. This is why there is such a great risk of civil war.
Significant migrations have been taking place since the uprising began. Thousands of young men have returned to the mountains from other parts of Libya, and even from elsewhere in the world, to fight for their tribes and against Gadhafi in these dusty hills. Many rebels fighting for the Zintan are unwilling to be photographed, because they have come from Tripoli and their families are still there.
Forces Are No Armies
A 22-year-old named Ahmed Hanna says that he was working on an oil tanker and was on land in France when the war began. He returned home, as did Hani Mahlouf, a 29-year-old Berber, who had been living in Kuala Lumpur, where he was writing his dissertation on supersonic aircraft wings. He says that he couldn't stay there, and that his place is here, on the front in Qawalish.
Mahlouf explains, in a surprisingly simple sentence, what is happening in the mountains: "This is a war that is being fought between the tribes that were here originally, and the people who only arrived 50 or 60 years ago."
Many rebels say that more and more volunteers are now fighting for Gadhafi, whose army had previously consisted solely of mercenaries and soldiers. The forces facing off in the mountains are no armies. In the battle for Qawalish two weeks ago, few more than 1,000 men were fighting on the rebel side, while Gadhafi's troops were hardly any more numerous.
It is impossible to capture and hold larger pieces of territory with such a small army, which probably explains why the rebels are not advancing any farther in Qawalish. The inhabitants of the villages on the other side of the front are, in their majority, seen as Gadhafi supporters, from whom the rebels cannot expect much help.
Computer Scientist Turned Sniper
Last week only a few dozen fighters were visible at the northernmost point along the front, a cement plant near the town of Bir al-Ghanam on the northern edge of the mountain, 80 kilometers from Tripoli. They have dug themselves into the mountain, where they were attacked on the previous day and fought successfully for hours to hold their positions.
A 21-year-old rebel fighter named Mohammed, who was a computer science student before he became a sniper, says that Gadhafi has only 300 soldiers stationed below. He points to a wall in the village. "I can see two of them with my bare eyes." he says. "They're probably smoking."
He says that they sometimes fire rockets at the town, mostly out of boredom. He decides to show us how it's done. The rebels use the base of a home trainer as a firing ramp. They aim the rocket and connect the ignition wire to a car battery. Nothing happens. They try it three or four times, but still nothing happens.
Exhausted by the heat, they sit down again in the shade behind a large cliff. And they wait.