Monday, September 5, 2011

Outside Bani Walid


NEAR BANI WALID, Libya—Rebel reinforcements are arriving outside the pro-Gadhafi stronghold of Bani Walid, where thousands of rebels are waiting for orders to attack as negotiations to resolve the standoff peacefully have appeared to founder.

A small rebel convoy arrived Monday at a checkpoint about 40 miles from Bani Walid, a city of 100,000 residents 90 miles southwest of Tripoli, according to the Associated Press. Ismail al-Gitani told AP the fighters were part of a larger force he commands and that he was ordered to reinforce the northern approaches to Bani Walid, though he refused to say how many fighters he had brought.

Bani Walid stands as a first test of rebels' ability to assert control over a large swath of central Libya still controlled by Col. Moammar Gadhafi's loyalists and dominated by the three tribes that formed the backbone of his regime.

The looming struggle for control of Bani Walid could provide a first indication of how the battle for those Gadhafi-controlled remnants of Libya is likely to play out. Rebels are unlikely to find anywhere near the same degree of popular support form the area's residents as they have enjoyed nearly everywhere else they have fought until now.

Bani Walid's fate will also be closely watched as an early test of weather compromise and reconciliation is possible between rebels and those tribes and regions most intimately affiliated with Col. Gadhafi's regimes.

Negotiations between Bani Walid elders and rebel leaders have dragged on for several days, as rebel forces on the outskirts of the city have steadily swelled, threatening an attack on the city and raising the pressure on the city's elders to strike a deal.

A deadline for the city's leaders to surrender the city or face attack has come and gone, with rebel leaders offering conflicting statements about whether the deadline for Bani Walid had been extended to Sept. 10, as a similar deadline for those loyalists holding out in Sirte was.

A rebel commander outside Bani Walid on Sunday said the negotiations had stumbled over pro-Gadhafi loyalists' demands for assurances that they won't be arrested once rebels enter the town. Rebel leaders insist that those responsible for killing fellow Libyans and for stealing Libyan assets be prosecuted.

"Our families are inside there, we don't war," said Sami Mohammed, a 36-year-old fighter from Bani Walid. "But we're losing hope. Those people with Libyan blood on their hands are preventing any deal being reached."

If Bani Walid falls, it could help expedite the fall of Sirte, since it would help cut off Sirte's access to the south, leaving it fully invested by rebel forces from the east, west, and south, and from North Atlantic Treaty Organization warships at sea to the north.

NATO war planes continued a steady operational tempo over the weekend carrying out 48 airstrikes on Saturday, including an ammunitions storage facility in Bani Walid.

Bani Walid is dominated by the one-million strong Warfalla tribe, the largest tribe in Libya. The Warfalla, along with the Magarha Tribe and Col. Gadhafi's Gadadfa Tribe, anchored Col. Gadhafi's nearly 42-year rule.

The regional strongholds of those three tribes remain the only parts of Libya still outside rebel control, a stretch of territory that reaches from the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte in the north to Sebha deep in Libya's southern desert. The Gadadfa tribe holds sway in Col. Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, while the Magarha hold sway in Sebha. Senior rebel officials believe Col. Gadhafi and his intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi are now in hiding in and around Sebha.

These areas pose a new challenge to rebel forces. Until now, rebels have largely relied on a two-pronged strategy to win territory that coordinated uprisings by rebel cells within a city or village with rebel forces attacking from outside those areas.

That has helped isolate pro-Gadhafi forces and helped rebels avoid situations in which they were seen as hostile outsiders and occupiers imposing their rule on hostile populations.

But it is also possible that support for Col. Gadhafi even in his supposed stronghold regions, has been exaggerated. Little information has seeped out of these areas during the six-months-long rebellion. It appears significant pockets of pro-rebel sentiment exist within both Sebha and Bani Walid.

At a rebel way station outside the city on Sunday, most of the rebel fighters gearing up to take the city were originally from Bani Walid. The unit that is expected to take the lead in the fight is named the May 28 Brigade, in memory of the date three months ago when Bani Walid youth took to the streets in protest against Col. Gadhafi's rule and 13 were shot and killed by security forces.

Bani Walid's history of opposition goes back even further to 1993, when a group of military officers from the city staged a failed coup attempt to overthrow Col. Gadhafi.

Rebel fighters who recently fled the city to join up with the rebel attack force, said they had seen Seif al-Islam al-Gadhafi, Col. Gadhafi's son, inside Bani Walid last week. They said he passed out fresh weapons, including 80 sniper rifles, to supporters there. He also attended a funeral in the town center, which he claimed was for his brother Khamis al-Gadhafi, they said.

"Seif told the crowd this is my brother Khamis we are burying, but no one saw the corpse inside the coffin, so maybe yes, maybe no," said Mr. Mohammed, the rebel fighter who fled from Bani Walid on Friday.

Rebel leaders have separately said they believed Khamis al-Gadhafi, who commanded one of Col. Gadhafi's most elite military units, was killed recently in battle.

Write to Charles Levinson at

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