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Juan Cole, Informed Comment: Rebels Advance, Surround Tripoli, as Qaddafi Totters

Rebels Advance, Surround Tripoli, as Qaddafi Totters
by Juan Cole, August 15, 2011

The long slow slog of the Libyan struggle to throw off the rule of Muammar Qaddafi, accelerated this weekend, possibly decisively, with rebel forces making major advances. Tripoli was said to be ready to embrace the rebel youth when they came into the capital.

Free Libya forces made substantial advances over the weekend, coming up from Zintan to take much of Zawiya on the coast, with the help of the majority in the city that opposes dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Zawiya was the site of among the first and biggest anti-Qaddafi demonstrations, and was brutally repressed with tank and artillery fire on unarmed noncombatants by Qaddafi brigades. Since March it has been under secret police rule, but that was thrown off jointly by locals and by their allies from the Western Mountain region to the south.

Not only did they take most of Zawiya, but they went into the neighboring towns of Surman and Gharyan, where there was heavy fighting. If the Free Libya fighters can keep Zawiya, they can cut Tripoli off from arms and supplies that flowed to Qaddafi from smugglers in Tunisia along the Mediterranean. Zawiya itself has an important petroleum refinery, which could end up being denied to Qaddafi in Tripoli.

To the east of the capital, forces from Misrata finally took the town of Tawarga, where Qaddafi forces had been based and from which they sent Grad rockets on Misrata indiscriminately, killing fair numbers of civilians. The Aljazeera correspondent in Tawarga says it is a ghost town, with the loyalist troops and inhabitants having abruptly and mysteriously fled. Misrata can no longer be shelled from that town.

A loyalist officer who was captured and then defected has told reporters from Misrata that the Tripoli regime is extremely divided and that the capital is near to falling. He said that Qaddafi’s forces consist of regular army, militiamen, and mercenaries. The mercenaries, paid well by Qaddafi with oil money he usurped from his people, surround the troops in formation and prevent them from retreating or defecting. But there have been clashes between militias and mercenaries.

Free Libya forces also took another neighborhood in the divided oil city of Brega in the east over the weekend.

The rebels and their NATO air allies have pursued a long, slow rollback of Qaddafi’s brigades. The latter had committed numerous crimes against humanity as they attempted to crush the popular urban demonstrations last March. Although there have been some unfortunate actions by the undisciplined rebels, Human Rights Watch concluded that they cannot be compared to the systematic crimes of the Qaddafi regime.

The forces in Zawiya were speaking of going on to Tripoli within a month.

Despite the doubts of the pundits, it cannot be assumed that these victories are temporary. Although it is true that some towns, like Ra’s Lanouf, have changed hands more than once since the struggle began, it is also true that the Free Libya forces have taken and held major territory even against fierce Qaddafi attacks, as with Misrata and the Western Mountain region.

Qaddafi forces do not appear to have defended Zawiya very vigorously, suggesting a collapse of esprit de corps. The same conclusion could be reached on observing the sudden decamping of Qaddafi loyalists from Tawarga, which left even the rebels puzzled. Likewise, NATO bombing raids appear to have increased in effectiveness (the road from Zintan to Zawiya is said to show signs of intensive bombardment of Qaddafi military outposts and depots), with strategic targets chosen that will help the rebel advance. For some time NATO wasted time and support by trying to hit Qaddafi’s compound and decapitate the regime, which had a low chance of success.

Despite a defiant television appearance Sunday in Tripoli, Qaddafi must have a premonition that his rule of Libya is effectively over with. His last ‘million man march’ in the capital drew only 100 people. Mysterious negotiations between his rump government and the Transitional National Council, which now has the bulk of the country, took place in Tunisia on Sunday evening. Were they discussing the terms of Qaddafi’s exile?

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