Libya: the struggle intensifies

Twenty four hours ago, the streets of Tripoli were full of the sounds of rejoicing. Now they are filled with the sounds of gunfire. The real battle for Tripoli has commenced.

The confused and contradictory reports from Libyan capital indicate that what we saw in the last 24 hours was not the end but only the beginning of the battle for the capital. The surprising ease and rapidity with which the rebel forces entered the heart of the city disguised the fact that the enemy forces had not been liquidated and still retained the ability to stage a counterattack.

The BBC correspondent says fighting in Tripoli has restarted, with the sounds of gunfire and grenades. Gaddafi forces have been reinforced and some rebel supply lines into the city have come under attack. It is clear loyalists are fighting back in some areas and many casualties are being reported.

The position seems to be that the rebels remain in possession of large parts of the city, including Green Square. But pro-Gaddafi forces are attempting to launch a counter attack. Yesterday I considered just such a possibility, but on the basis of the information then available, did not think it the most likely variant. Now we see that, despite the rebels’ rapid advance on Tripoli, which was a severe setback, Gaddafi still has forces he can rely on to continue fighting. He showed this last night, when a government counterattack inflicted severe casualties on the rebels who were obviously taken by surprise.

Heavy clashes were reported in Mansoura between government forces and opposition fighters, with Gaddafi men using mortars and heavy weapons. The source of the attacks is Bab al-Aziziyah, a large compound where Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is thought to be hiding. It has been the focal point of fighting in Tripoli and rebel leaders have said that they do not expect the huge complex to fall easily.

A woman called Danya, who is in Dubai and has family in Tripoli says they are telling her that "snipers are everywhere, and Gaddafi forces keep counter-attacking. As soon as you think your neighbourhood is free, they'll start shooting from rooftops".

Who are these men who are shooting people in cold blood from the rooftops? Entrenched in his fortress, Gaddafi has surrounded himself with a kind of Praetorian Guard. Some will be fanatical Gaddafi supporters, willing to follow their leader to the end. Others will be foreign mercenaries, mainly from African countries, who have participated in acts of repression against the population and who fear the fate that may befall them if the rebels are victorious. They fight on because they have nothing to lose by fighting and, they believe, everything to lose by surrendering.

Fog of propaganda

Covers gathered from The Newseum’s daily collection of front pages from across the US (by Future Journalism Project)Covers gathered from The Newseum’s daily collection of front pages from across the US (by Future Journalism Project) Amidst all the fog of propaganda, claim and counter-claim, it is difficult to assess the real position on the ground. Rebel leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil is claiming that his fighters were in control of 95% of the city. But the BBC's Matthew Price, in Tripoli, says it is still unclear who is winning the battle for the capital. Both sides say they control most of the capital.

NATO spokesman Col Roland Lavoie says it is difficult to know exactly which areas are still controlled by Col Gaddafi's forces: "Each side is claiming victories, and of course clarity is the first casualty in that conflict, because we were bombarded with a variety of information. I would say, globally speaking, it is clear that the Gaddafi regime has lost its grip and control over the capital," he told the BBC Radio Four Today programme.

The most astonishing report was that Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, has appeared in Tripoli, after repeated reports of his arrest yesterday. A BBC correspondent said Saif al-Islam seemed confident and full of adrenalin. He turned up in the early hours of Tuesday at the Rixos Hotel, where many international journalists are based, claiming that the government had "broken the backbone" of the rebel offensive.

UK International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell blamed confusion over Saif al-Islam's apparent arrest on the "fog of warfare": "There was a lot of confusion, there are quite long lines of communication involved. It's inevitable in this situation, with the warfare going on as it is, that there will be some confusion.”

Confusion is the word of the moment in Libya. In a civil war propaganda plays an even bigger role than in normal warfare. And here the deafening din of propaganda makes it all but impossible to ascertain the real position. It seems that in Libya, what counts most is not the number of bullets fired but the level of noise generated.

Claim and counter-claim

Matthew Price, the BBC News correspondent in Tripoli asked Saif al-Islam Gaddafi where he saw the balance of power in Tripoli: "We gave them a hard time, so we are winning," he told me. He seemed pumped full of adrenalin and brimming with confidence.

But Libyan opposition TV immediately dismissed the claim of Saif al-Islam that the government had "broken the backbone" of the rebel offensive. Reacting to the statement, one of the presenters on the Doha-based rebel TV station said: "It does not matter if Saif al-Islam appears on TV channels or not... The important thing is that Tripoli's youths freed the capital in less than 48 hours. It is just a matter of hours until youths arrest the whole ruling family."

Both claims are obviously exaggerated for propaganda purposes. The population of Tripoli is divided. Many came out to celebrate with the rebels on Green Square. BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes writes:

“Exactly what is going on in the city is very hard to say. It is best to describe the city as atomised into different neighbourhoods supporting different sides in the conflict."

"We were talking to locals last night who welcomed the rebels and who have joined the rebellion, and they said they are defending their neighbourhoods. I think what they're doing is they're defending their street, their neighbourhoods, they're barricading themselves in, they've got weapons, but they don't really control anything more than the street that they live in."

Others support Gaddafi and fear of reprisals from the rebels will encourage them to fight. The sudden appearance of Saif al-Islam will embolden them further. The Gaddafi forces are better armed and better coordinated than the rebels are. The units that are defending the area around Gaddafi's compound and around the Rixos hotel in the middle of Tripoli are very well equipped.

The whereabouts of Gaddafi himself remain unknown. He has not been seen in public for months, although he has broadcast audio messages from undisclosed locations. It seems likely he is still at the compound of Bab al-Aziziyah. However, despite the last-minute rally of his forces, the outlook for Gaddafi is bleak. Zawiyah, Zuwara, Gheryan, Al-Aziziyah and Brega have fallen in less than two weeks. Tripoli was already cut off from the rest of Libya. Now Gaddafi only controls the area around his bunker. How long can that last?

The NTC has admitted that the fight is not over — not only in Tripoli but in other areas of the country as well. It is believed that some loyalist forces could enter Tripoli from the city of Zlitan, and loyalist strongholds remain in the cities of Sirte and Sabha. Sirte is Gaddafi’s hometown and, like Sabha, is a bastion of the Gaddafi tribe, which has relied upon the Libyan leader’s reign for its privileged position.

These will be the last groups of loyalists to surrender. They could even provide a basis for the continuation of the civil war for a time – but it would be on the lines of a guerrilla war or a terrorist campaign rather than a full-blown war. The fact is that, whatever happens in the next days, Gaddafi has lost power in Libya.

The international situation

People want freedom, Obama wants oil - LatuffPeople want freedom, Obama wants oil - Latuff Internationally, the situation is even worse for Muammar Gaddafi, deserted by one state after another. Oman is only the latest Arab nation to break off relations with Gaddafi's regime in favour of the National Transitional Council. It has recognised Libya's rebel-led council as the country's legitimate international representatives. Gaddafi is completely isolated internationally. Even China has said that the matter must be settled by the will of the Libyan people, an oblique way of recognizing the new government.

South Korea said it was considering sending money to Libyan rebels, while Seoul shares in construction firms soared amid growing hopes for resumption of their projects in Libya. Seoul's Yonhap News agency reported South Korea planned to provide up to one million U.S. dollars in cash for humanitarian purposes to the rebels.

"Our government has provided humanitarian aid to the rebels through international organisations, and we are considering providing a certain amount of money from the humanitarian aspect on the bilateral basis," Shin Maeng-ho, the foreign ministry spokesman, told a news briefing on Tuesday.

The turmoil in Libya disrupted South Korean firms' construction projects and led them to evacuate thousands of workers. But now Seoul shares in construction firms rose amid growing hopes the civil war in Libya may be drawing to a close and rebuilding projects in the country could resume. Hyundai Engineering Construction gained 8.82 per cent and Daewoo Engineering Construction surged 8.58 per cent when Tuesday's stock market closed. Seoul analysts said the post-Gaddafi regime would need to build new roads and houses, which could boost infrastructure demand for Korean firms. As the Englsh proverb goes: It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

Iran today also congratulated the Libyan people, saying the rebellion there indicated the necessity of submitting to the "legitimate demands of the people." "The popular uprising in Libya once again showed that submitting to the legitimate demands of the people and respecting their opinions is an undeniable necessity," the statement said. Whether the government in Teheran was itself willing to do the same was not made clear.

Even so, In Washington, London and Paris they are worried. In place of the triumphant tone yesterday, their latest statements are more cautious. Suddenly victory over Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's regime is "not complete" French officials warned on Tuesday, as Paris' joy over the rebel forces' entry into Tripoli gave way to renewed caution.

"I said yesterday that victory was not complete," insisted Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who on Monday had written - in a blog post entitled "End of a dictatorship" - "The goal is being achieved." Defence Minister Gerard Longuet, who on Monday had declared: "The regime has fallen, the turnaround is total", said on France Inter radio: "In Libya the situation is not totally at an end, far from it."

Both officials confirmed that there were still pockets of resistance by pro-Gaddafi fighters and that combat was continuing, holding out the possibility of more NATO air strikes. Juppe told Europe 1 radio that officials from France, Britain, Turkey, Germany, the United States and several Arab countries had held a conference call on Monday to discuss their ongoing military mission.

There are reports of new NATO air attacks on Gaddafi’s compound, although these have proved ineffective in the past. The imperialists are afraid that the renewed fighting will radicalize the situation even more and strengthen the hand of the rebel fighters at the expense of the “moderates” in the NTC. They are desperate to bring about an end to the fighting in order to allow a speedy return to “normality” – that is, to the normal rule of big business and imperialism.

Changed mood

If the mood has changed in London and Paris, it has experienced an even bigger swing on the streets of Tripoli. Yesterday’s mood of euphoria has given way to a very different mood. Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, reporting live from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, said: "Now we are seeing accusations, doubts, and confusions”.

The rebels who have done all the fighting are suspicious that their self-appointed leaders in the National Transitional Council are manoeuvring behind their backs to do a deal with the old regime. One correspondent says: "We are starting to see now the resentment. I think this is going to put the pressure on the NTC that if wants to be part of a new Libya it going to have to get over to Tripoli pretty quickly. Because if it turns up later, the people on the ground will feel they own this revolution and will likely say 'who are you, we’ve done all the hard work go away'. This is a crucial time for the NTC.

"It is going to be interesting to see how the NTC explains this debacle and how it seeks to reinforce and strengthen these alliances and able the rebels to get to Tripoli itself," she said.

Many questions need to be answered. How was it possible for the rebels to enter Tripoli virtually unopposed? How do we explain the strange pantomime of the supposed detention of Gaddafi’s sons followed swiftly by their equally strange “liberation”? A complete mystery surrounds the question of what became of the Libyan army’s Khamis Brigade. Stratfor reports:

“Commanded by Gadhafi’s son Khamis, the brigade purportedly was the strongest line of defense protecting the capital, yet on Aug. 21 the forces put up almost no resistance as rebels pushed eastward from Zawiya. An Aug. 22 Al Arabiya report claimed that Khamis Gadhafi was leading the brigade from the Gadhafi compound at Bab al-Aziziya into central Tripoli, though this was never confirmed, nor was an Al Jazeera report that his corpse had been discovered alongside the body of Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi in Tripoli. Khamis’ whereabouts, like those of his father and several other brothers, are unclear.”

The distrust of the fighters towards the NTC is completely justified. The gentlemen in Benghazi would have preferred to arrive at an agreement with Gaddafi, which would have handed them power on a silver plate, while providing guarantees of immunity for Gaddafi and his family. It is not impossible that they were in the process of reaching some such deal when the sudden eruption of the rebel army into Tripoli upset their plans. This is only a hypothesis, of course, but it would explain many things that otherwise appear inexplicable.

"One rebel fighter told Al Jazeera that he suspected that maybe Saif al-Islam had bribed his way out and he accused the NTC of cutting some sort of a deal. He asked: 'Where is the NTC? Why are they not in Tripoli? We are doing all the hard work, they are back in Benghazi sunbathing or something'."

This growing mood of criticism explains why members of the rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi say they plan to fly to the capital on Wednesday to start work on forming a new government. Like their bosses in Paris and London, they are worried that the situation in Tripoli will get out of control: that is, out of their control.

The wind of change

Whatever plans the NTC may have had to strike a deal with Gaddafi are now in ruins. Gaddafi’s counterattack, which left many rebel fighters dead, will have stoked the fires of anger. There are reports of large groups of rebels heading towards Bab Aziziya being cheered by the people.

Nobody can say exactly how events will play out in the next hours or days. Revolution is a struggle of living forces. The present conflict can be drawn out and swing one way or the other before reaching a final conclusion. But it is clear that the wind is of change is blowing strongly, not only in Libya but throughout the Arab world. It is leaping from one country to another. It laughs at frontiers and defies all attempts to stop it. It is the most powerful wind of all – the wind of history.

The old regimes cannot withstand this hurricane. They can last for a time on the basis of repression. But finally the dominoes must fall, one after the other. This fact, long ago predicted by the Marxists, is now beginning to be recognised by the most intelligent bourgeois observers. In today’s edition of The Independent, Robert Fisk expressed very well the international repercussions of these events. We will close with his words:

“The remaining Arab potentates and tyrants have spent a second sleepless night. How soon will the liberators of Tripoli metamorphose into the liberators of Damascus and Aleppo and Homs? Or of Amman? Or Jerusalem? Or of Bahrain or Riyadh? [...] Ben Ali gone, Mubarak gone, Saleh more or less gone, Gaddafi overthrown, Assad in danger, Abdullah of Jordan still facing opposition, Bahrain's minority Sunni monarchy still suicidally hoping to rule for eternity. These are massive historical events [...]

“The Arab Spring is going to last for years. We better think about that. There is no 'end of history'."

London, 23rd August, 2011.

Post Script (6:30 pm): The latest news shows that the rebels have stormed Gaddafi's compound and taken it. Gaddafi has disappeared, but the rebels are raiding the armoury.