Monday, March 7, 2011

Sandstorm over Litya from Satelite

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Satellite image of Sandstorm over Libya

Asia Times March 8, 2011
Cappuccino rebels v king of Africa
By Derek Henry Flood

BREGA and BENGHAZI - Libya's spontaneous revolution that began with a small protest outside a courthouse by a group of inspired lawyers on February 17 has quickly metastasized into an all-out conflict that has split the formerly isolated Saharan oil state into warring factions with cloudy military objectives.

The conflict is devoid of an immediate end in sight as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi suddenly appears somewhat more lucid in his ever-elongating diatribes while his caffeine-fueled opponents are rebuffing loyalist troops and pay-for-play mercenaries in surges over broad sand dunes along the Gulf of Sirte far west of the rebels' transitional administrative redoubt of Benghazi.

In what was instantly dubbed The Battle of Brega, volunteer fighters from disparate corners of the country rushed towards a highly fluid front line as Gaddafi's government forces failed to hold a key oil facility and transport hub belonging to the state oil company.

As world crude prices continue to soar, the Barack Obama administration's highest officials in Washington appear incapable of dealing with the crisis, searching for words in awkward testimony being beamed in on satellite channels across the Arab spectrum. American foreign policy, along with that of Britain, Italy and France, in regard to Libya's insta-crisis is not nimble enough to appear decisive in a scenario in which a close to immediate stand needs to be taken.

The rebels want to have their cake and eat it too, strongly desiring the imposition of a Western-created "no-fly" zone over opposition-held territory and a possible death-from-above assassination of Gaddafi, while at the same time instantaneously rejecting the notion of any measure of European or, gasp, American boots on the ground in Libya.

Libya's rag-tag rebels say they would turn their guns on any foreign forces that decamped on their shores and that Western troops would sink into insurgent quicksand. A British special forces team that arrived unannounced under the cover of night outside Benghazi, supposedly claiming, on capture, to want to liaise with the rebel leadership, was immediately detained and sent back to the HMS Cumberland in an embarrassment to London. The Libyan rebels consider such actions an affront to their attempts at some modicum of sovereignty.

For the colonel, who has stolen from his people so faithfully for close to 42 years, the lack of concert among the international community provides a clear window for him to smash his internal enemies from the air with dated MiGs and late-model Mirages, while his propaganda against his enemies runs amok.

"Do you see any al-Qaeda here? Are we terrorists? No, by God we are fighting for our freedom!" said a Libyan resident outside a hospital's emergency room in the town of Brega as Tripoli's fighter jets soared over ambulances resupplying blood donations to the staff as they braced for more civilian casualties. Doctors at the hospital described Gaddafi's aerial assault as a deliberate attack on Brega's civilian population and the hospital's ostensible protection under the Geneva Conventions came into question as intimidating warplanes roared past.

Gaddafi, as one of the longest-serving dictators in the late modern period, is an extraordinarily clever man, a 20th century strongman trying desperately to survive in the 21st. Scenarios about his immediate fate swirl among Benghazi's warrens like so much sand dancing across the desert's roads. Livid about Gaddafi's constant, ridiculous assertions about al-Qaeda involvement in the largely secular uprising-cum-civil war, a young Libyan man stepped out of the crowd, referring to Gaddafi's decades-long failed attempt at becoming a supra-national Third World statesman while ignoring his own people, "Gaddafi wants to be the king of Africa, but look at us. He cannot even control Libya! You can see that there is no al-Qaeda here."

Libyan rebels coming from backgrounds as diverse as sheep herders to urbanized post-graduates fire their internal pistons stopping at roadside espresso and cappuccino stalls and their backers shuttle bottled water and boxes of dates to the front to keep them going as they await the arrival of more ammunition being trucked in from Benghazi.

The diversity of the rebels along both class and ethnic lines adds credibility to the notion that the revolt across northern Libya is indeed a popular and totally localized one rather than one instigated by international terrorists as spouted by a semi-coherent Gaddafi.

On March 4, the rebels met heavy resistance while trying to advance toward another oil installation town of Ras Lanuf. Asia Times Online witnessed rebels young and old with high morale scurrying back from the battlefront after coming under heavy artillery fire from Gaddafi loyalist forces.

The rebels, despite their mostly inferior, dated arms, were eventually able to take Ras Lanuf by Saturday, though the gain is not necessarily consolidated as the front line ebbs and flows west to east and back again to a degree. The Libyan war may reach a stalemate if the rebels are not able to take the Gaddafi strongholds of Sirte, Libya's Tikrit, as in the home town of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, and Tripoli, while controlling the towns on either side of both cities.

The political leadership of the rebel movement, still in its infancy, led by former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, declared itself to be Libya's new leadership on March 5 and stated that it expected the international community to quickly adapt to events in Libya and recognize the so-called National Council as Libya's legitimate transitional administration.

However, political developments in downtown Benghazi may only have the momentum to coax Western powers into formally dealing with the rebel leadership once more strategic towns and cities loyal to the regime fall to the opposition in at least semi-conclusive military victories. Though the rebels finally conquered Ras Lanuf after a good deal of difficulty, it is far from certain the regime's troops and their proxies will not mount a deadly counter-attack in the coming days and push the rebels back toward previous frontlines like Brega.

Outside a Red Crescent facility acting as a field hospital near the town of al-Aghela on Friday, Libyan men congregated in the parking lot anxiously awaiting the arrival of rebel casualties; these turned into a steady stream from the front as ambulances whizzed to and fro along the desert highway.

Residents told Asia Times Online that they dreamed that Libya would somehow be transformed into a democracy once the revolution ended with the elimination of Gaddafi and his seven sons. "We want one man [leader] every four years, not one man for 40 years!" one excited man shouted. "Bring us the rule of law!" shouted another.

Residents said they were gleeful about the imminent demise of a twisted regime that routinely terrorized its own people for so many decades, adding that the West was in err in its fitful attempts to ingratiate Gaddafi back into the international community of nations.

Those gathered in the Red Crescent's car park began to celebrate the fall of Ras Lanuf, albeit slightly early, and told of their certainty of Gaddafi's involvement in both the 1988 Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing and the 1989 Union des Transports Aerians flight 772 bombing over Niger that killed the wife of the American ambassador to Chad. Gaddafi repeatedly threw Libya's oil wealth around the world in a bid to make good on past misdeeds.

More infuriating to the Libyan people than Gaddafi's Cold War legacy of state terrorism were his recent cash donations of the country's oil wealth to poorer sub-Saharan nations to project Libya's financial independence even as many ordinary Libyans remain destitute, particularly in the more remote desert regions. Locals are beyond incensed at the Gaddafi dynasty's gross displays of wealth, much of it outside of Libya's borders, whether inducing American pop stars at glamorous international fetes thrown by his sons or his buying of loyalty amid the grinding poverty of his neighbors.

Younus, a highly educated, older man in a long brown, hooded djellaba stepped forward to say that American and England were normally gallant nations which had served valiantly in World War II to evict the Axis powers from the country, but that the evolution of their relationships with the Israeli state - which many Libya's vociferously detest - had tainted Libyan's view of them during decades of Arab nationalist rhetoric, anger and isolating sanctions.

"We view Gaddafi as no different than the Israelis. Both of these regimes have killed people for a long time. The problem [in our potential relations with] America is that America helps Israel. We Libyans think that Gaddafi is getting help [in the current conflict] from the Israelis."

The men gathered to accuse Gaddafi of conducting collective punishment by detaining family members of known rebels who are stuck behind government lines in Tripoli. The constricting human-rights situation in the capital only creates an impetus for anti-Gaddafi troops to push harder and faster toward Sirte and the capital and rescue their countrymen before Gaddafi can inflict more harm.

As news of the impending opposition control of Ras Lanuf circulated, the mood morphed from misery to joy and Kalashnikov rounds raced upward into the night air, giving way to a mass prayer directed toward Mecca.

For all the rebels' excitement and optimism even in light of serious casualties, there is a very hard road ahead wedged in between the Mediterranean's pounding surf and the desert's blinding sandstorms, with pro-government soldiers and tank regiments backed by fighter jets awaiting them on the other side of tomorrow.

Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and South and Central Asia.

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