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Ironically, in 2009, Col. Gadhafi was appointed chairman of the 53-nation African Union. In 2008, more than 200 African kings and traditional rulers bestowed the title “king of kings” on the Libyan strongman.

Libya’s army, navy and air forces are equipped with aging Cold War-era equipment.

“The country’s poorly maintained inventories also include some U.S. and Western European arms, including French Mirage fighters and U.S. C-130 transports,” according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Libya’s military always has been expensive to maintain but never had the training to be broadly effective, said Anthony H. Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It has always had far more equipment than its total manning can actually operate,” he said. “You have an army with some 25,000 regulars and some 25,000 conscripts, attempting to man a force with over 2,000 tanks and something on the order of 2,000 other armored vehicles and 2,500 artillery pieces. It frankly is a structure that exists in a dream world.”

Col. Gadhafi, who came to power in a coup in 1969, is deeply suspicious of the armed forces and over his four-decade rule has sought to limit its powers.

The security forces control the armed forces’ access to ammunition. Mr. Sahad said ammunition is routinely taken away from soldiers when they are not in combat.

The security forces, on the other hand, are well-equipped and devoted to the protection of Col. Gadhafi and his regime.

This force “consists of foreigners or people from Gadhafi’s tribe or selected in a specific way to guarantee their loyalty to Gadhafi,” said Mr. Sahad.

Libya’s best-trained, best-equipped and best-paid force is the elite 32nd Brigade, led by Col. Gadhafi’s Russia-trained son Khamis. This brigade is considered key to the regime’s survival and has Russian, British and Italian equipment.

“Aside from one elite brigade, the other battalions have always been more a matter of image than reality,” said Mr. Cordesman.

The al-Fadeel battalion in Benghazi was responsible for much of the recent bloodshed in the eastern city. Benghazi fell to the rebels after army defectors and armed civilians overpowered the battalion.

Col. Gadhafi and his family are thought to be staying at Bab al-Aziziya, a heavily fortified military barracks on the outskirts of Tripoli.

In 1986, President Reagan ordered an airstrike on Bab al-Aziziya in retaliation for Libya’s bombing of a West German disco that killed two U.S. soldiers.

In recent weeks, the Libyan military has been hit by desertions, especially in eastern cities such as Benghazi. How much of the force remains is anybody’s guess.

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