September 08, 2011

Article at Washington Post

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Libyan rebels struggle to win over pro-Gaddafi town

A Libyan rebel gives the V for victory sign in the town of al-Ajelat in western Libya, while the rebel flag is draped over a government building in the background. (Simon Denyer/The Washington Post)

AJAYLAT, Libya — Sitting on a carpet under the shade of a tree, the men say they know where Moammar Gaddafi is today — and where he will always be.

“He is in our hearts,” they say, almost in unison, tapping their chests with their right hands.

Two weeks ago, almost every house in the town of Ajaylat, a Gaddafi stronghold about 50 miles west of Tripoli, flew the green flag of the autocrat’s regime. Today, those flags have been taken down, but the rebels’ red, black and green banner flies over only a handful of government buildings.

Pro-Gaddafi graffiti have been painted over, but they have not been replaced with the slogans of the revolution. Shop shutters are still uniformly green, and — unlike in other towns — no one appears to be searching for red and black paint to convert them.

“In this area, only about 10 percent of people are against Gaddafi,” said Khamis, a 45-year-old businessman, who, like many people here, preferred not to give his family name so he could speak more freely. “Ninety percent are pro-Gaddafi. But at the moment we are in our homes, worried and afraid about what is going on.”

Ajaylat was “liberated” by Libyan rebels at the beginning of this month, about 10 days after the fall of Tripoli. Earnest young men from the town have formed a new city council and say they are working hard to win people’s trust.

But support for Gaddafi and his government runs deep in Ajaylat. Several senior Gaddafi officials come from the conservative, close-knit community, which is poorer and less cosmopolitan than other towns and cities along the coast where the rebellion has prospered. And the way rebel fighters behaved when they stormed the town did nothing to help their cause. Residents say houses of some leading Gaddafi sympathizers were looted or burned, weapons were seized at gunpoint and government cars were confiscated.

“This is not a peaceful revolution,” said Khalifa Omar Musbah, 61, a farmer who said his two sons were killed when they refused to give up their weapons. “A revolution should be peaceful and bring a better system of government, not just guns.”

The rebels’ problems in winning over the people of Ajaylat are a microcosm of the even larger problems they are likely to face as they prepare to move into the Gaddafi strongholds of Sirte, Bani Walid and Jufra, which lie to the east of Tripoli.

On Thursday, Gaddafi loyalists in Bani Walid fired at least 10 rockets toward rebel lines. Rebels who have converged on Bani Walid say several key Gaddafi loyalists, possibly including one or two of his sons, are being sheltered there.

Meanwhile, the former Libyan leader issued another defiant audio message to a Syrian television channel, vowing to remain in Libya to fight on, calling his opponents “mercenaries, thugs and traitors” and dismissing reports that he was fleeing toward neighboring African states.

“We are ready to start the fight in Tripoli and everywhere else and rise up against them,” Gaddafi said in the message. “All of these germs, rats and scumbags — they are not Libyans. Ask anyone. They have cooperated with NATO.”

In Ajaylat, several people said they were still hoping that Gaddafi could make a comeback and were prepared to fight on his behalf.

People here say Gaddafi made his country strong, independent and proud, while NATO and the West are interested only in Libya’s oil. As they sit and sip sweet black tea, loyalists relate the tale of a young man in the town who had not spoken since his birth 20 years ago. Last week he suddenly found his voice. “Victory for Gaddafi” were his only words, they say.

“People want Gaddafi. I can’t deny this,” said a resident named Khaled, 40. “We can’t live under the invasion. Even though they are afraid, in a few days people can fight again — men, women and children.”

Weapons are the nub of the problem in Ajaylat today, a problem that almost certainly will also surface in other pro-Gaddafi towns the rebels are trying to take over. The rebels know residents of Ajaylat were, and perhaps still are, their enemies. Consequently, they want the residents to turn in their weapons. The residents, however, feel unsafe and don’t see why they should give up their guns.

“They stopped my car and took my registration papers,” said another resident, Ramzi, 28. “They said if I want my papers back, I have to bring my weapon. But I don’t even know who they are. They are treating people’s possessions as their prizes.”

Fathe Ghait, a 31-year-old employee of the state electric company, said rebels confiscated his car because it was government property. Like many people here, he said the civilian administration of the town appears to have little control over the fighters, who, at least in the first few days after Ajaylat’s fall, were from other towns. “I complained to the local council, but they said they didn’t know anything about it,” he said.

At the rebels’ media center in town, Libya’s new national anthem blares from an office on an endless loop. Leaflets distributed in mosques and outside shops try to reassure people that the town’s new rulers are their brothers and are not from al-Qaeda, as Gaddafi’s propagandists had insisted.

“We are not here to hurt you, we are not here to kill you, we don’t want revenge,” one leaflet reads. “We wish you would hand in your weapons.”

In typical Libyan fashion, a committee made up of lawyers, judges and police officers has been formed to look into people’s complaints.

“There was wrongdoing by some individuals, but they don’t express our fight or our goals,” said Khaled Abu Rqutta, a 30-year-old accountant who has just been appointed financial controller for the new city council.

He said food has been distributed to poor families in town, and he sounded determined and sincere about the job of governing the town in a just and transparent way. But in the courtyards of Ajaylat, that message is getting through slowly, if at all.

Ramzi said some people here are refusing to refuel their cars because the rebels are forcing them to drive over a photograph of Gaddafi at the entrance to the main gas station.

“It was an emergency, and I needed some gas, so I was forced to go there,” Ramzi said. “But I only drove over it with one wheel, and I stopped to apologize to the picture.”