Libyan rebels ambivalent about U.S. military help

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 1, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces have surrounded Tarek Zawi’s hometown of Zawiya, he suspects, to stop shipments of food and medicine from coming in. When the rebel fighter steps outside his home to defend the city _ which has been in rebel hands for more than a week - from the nightly attacks, it's always on an empty stomach.

Yet in a phone conversation Zawi, who's 19, was slow to embrace help from the West to end the battle for control of Libya.

After a long pause, he finally agreed that one act of military assistance would be welcome. “Kill Gadhafi and get it over with," he said. "The Libyan people declared what they want: more freedom. A lot of people shouldn’t have to die for that.”

That reluctant call for help is spreading quickly across oil-rich Libya, even as rebels are deeply sensitive about foreign intervention. Many Libyans had hoped that the Gadhafi regime would be gone by now. That it isn't has forced the rebels to wrestle with whether foreign intervention would help or hurt their movement.

Whether the U.S. or other powers would in fact intervene is far from clear. The U.S. has dispatched two amphibious assault vessels loaded with hundreds of Marines, but Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that their purpose would be strictly humanitarian. A no-fly zone, intended to keep Gadhafi from bringing aircraft to bear in his struggle to hold on to power, is little more than an idea for now.

Still, the range of emotions that comes out as Libyans struggle with the possibility of foreign help captures how proud they are of what they've accomplished, how fearful they are that they won’t be able to finish the job anytime soon and how distrustful they are of the West and its motives.

Just a week ago, suggestions of Western intervention were met with outright hostility. But these days the response is more ambivalent, as the struggle between pro- and anti-Gadhafi forces reaches a standoff and the suffering of those who live in cities that are still under Gadhafi control seems crueler every day.

Stopping the bloodshed is paramount, many say.

In Zawiya, residents think that Gadhafi’s forces are blocking shipments of food and medicine to starve them into submission. There, residents such as Zawi can contemplate intervention.

In Benghazi, in Libya's east, where the battle against Gadhafi's forces was quick and often bloodless, suggestions that the United States and its allies would even enforce a no-fly zone are met more skeptically.

The mostly young anti-Gadhafi forces don’t want to risk tainting what they now proudly call a people’s movement. Soldiers driving confiscated tanks have painted “People’s Army” on the side. A sign that reads “No Foreign Intervention” hangs next to a large pre-Gadhafi flag over the new government center.

The sign was originally in response to the presence of the mercenaries who were brought in to buttress Gadhafi’s personal forces. But these days, it's also a message to the West.

The rebels said they worried that the United States’ help would come at a cost: Libyan oil, much of it in the east.

“Why didn’t they support us in the beginning? You think they are just going to come and help? They will take our oil. They only care about us because of our oil,” said a man who asked to be identified only as Jalal for security reasons.

Then he paused and added with resignation: “I don’t like the idea of U.S. help, but given the situation now, maybe it is good. It could save lives.”

It's hard for Libyans to envision limited U.S. intervention. Just the suggestion of a U.S. effort elicits images of Iraq. They said they didn't want to see troops on their ground or any semblance of the U.S. effort in Iraq here. They volunteered, “We don’t want to be like Iraq.”

That's left them searching for alternatives that somehow would give the rebel forces more help without losing the independence of the movement.

In preparation to help fellow fighters claim the western cities of Zawiya, Misrata and eventually the capital, Tripoli, young rebels conduct furtive training sessions. They hope to move west eventually.

Air Force Capt. Khalid Bin Amir, 35, is stationed at Benghazi’s airport, which no longer is operating. A military helicopter whose Libyan flag had been replaced by the pre-Gadhafi flag of Libya's monarchy sat on the tarmac. There was no one to fly it.

“We only have light weapons and they (the pro-Gadhafi forces) have heavy weapons,” Amir said. “We need an airstrike to weaken him” in order to move in and end the regime.

Gadhafi’s brutality against protesters has touched Mohammed Ibrahim Mohammed, 34, twice in the last five years, yet he wants what’s happened to remain a Libyan effort.

Gadhafi’s forces killed Mohammed's only brother five years ago, when protesters marched toward the Italian consulate in Benghazi to protest cartoons by a Danish artist that depicted the Prophet Muhammad.

On Tuesday, Mohammed was back at the cemetery where his brother is buried, this time for a neighbor whom Gadhafi's forces killed for protesting the regime.

He rejected intervention, at least at first. “We don’t need anybody,” he said.

But then he was asked: What about a deadly airstrike on Gadhafi’s compound by Western forces?

“Oh, God, I wish they would do that,” he responded.

In the absence of a no-fly zone, Zawi said Tuesday night that helicopters were hovering over him in Zawiya. His commanders warned him that they anticipated a long night of fighting, which would be at its peak at 2 a.m., when his shift was to begin.

“This will be a very bad night,” he predicted, 10 days after the blockade around his city began, “a very bad night.”

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