- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2011

Libyan rebels closed in on Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s tribal stronghold Sirte on Monday, but despite significant gains over the past few days, they predicted a bloody battle lies ahead.

Ibrahim, a rebel fighter whose full name has been withheld for his protection, told The Washington Times in a satellite phone interview that the poorly armed opposition force is no match for the regime’s firepower.

“I don’t think capturing Sirte will be easy for us today or tomorrow,” said Ibrahim, a former soldier in the Gadhafi regime who immigrated to the United States. He said he left his “lucrative business” in Chicago to fight alongside the rebels.

“We don’t have the type of weapons that Gadhafi has. We’re not strong enough to face his military. But we have a heart. They don’t have the heart,” he added.

Tribal loyalties run deep in Libya and especially in Sirte, Col. Gadhafi’s hometown 250 miles from Tripoli. The city is dominated by the Libyan dictator’s Gadhadhfa tribe, which has benefited tremendously over his 42-year reign.

However, the opposition is counting on the rival Firjan tribe to rise up against Gadhafi loyalists.

“If we manage a breakthrough in Sirte, the people will be on our side. They want their freedom as much as we do,” said Ibrahim.

Sirte was the target of coalition airstrikes earlier this week, which reversed the tide of battle for the rebels. On Monday, pro-Gadhafi soldiers began digging in on the outskirts of the city that blocks the rebels’ westward advance toward Tripoli.

“We believe the regime is preparing to dig in at Sirte, setting up a number of checkpoints and placing tanks throughout the city,” said Vice Adm. William Gortney, staff director for the Joint Chiefs.

He said the rebels were about 80 miles from Sirte on Monday afternoon.

The rebels suffered setbacks in Misurata, the only major city in the western part of Libya that is under their control. Pro-Gadhafi forces appeared to have the upper hand in the city 130 miles east of Tripoli. Residents said the regime was using tanks in their offensive.

The regime has cut phone, electricity and water supply to most of the rebel-held parts of Libya.

“We have no phones, no Internet, no radio. We’re on the front lines fighting blind,” said a rebel fighter, who declined to give his name out of concern for his family’s safety.

Even in Tripoli, which remains under the regime’s control, phone service has been erratic. Residents of the capital who could be contacted were too afraid to speak freely for fear of being arrested by Col. Gadhafi’s secret police.

Those who have been in touch with friends and family outside Libya told them the regime is kidnapping suspected dissidents, and many friends and neighbors have gone missing.

Over the weekend, rebels recaptured strategic oil towns of Ajdabiya, Ras Lanuf and Brega, along the Mediterranean coast in the eastern part of Libya.

A rebel who fought in Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawwad, another small eastern town, told The Times on the condition of anonymity that both towns were “100 percent” under the opposition’s control.

The rebels’ advance has been made possible by a U.S.-led coalition’s campaign of airstrikes. Rebel fighters acknowledge the importance of these strikes in which the regime has lost many tanks, trucks and heavy artillery.

“He cannot renew his supplies,” said Ibrahim. “His stock will be empty very soon.”

Rebels say they urgently require weapons and walkie-talkies to communicate with each other if they are to consolidate their gains.

“The international coalition is scared to give us weapons because they think there are al Qaeda elements in our ranks,” said Ibrahim. “There is no al Qaeda here. We are fighting for our freedom.”

An international conference is scheduled in London on Tuesday to consolidate strategy on Libya.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in a joint statement urged Gadhafi supporters to abandon the dictator.

“We call on all his followers to leave him before it is too late,” the two leaders said. “We call on all Libyans who believe that Gadhafi is leading Libya into a disaster to take the initiative now to organize a transition process.”

Mr. Cameron and Mr. Sarkozy said the opposition’s Interim National Transitional Council and civil society leaders should begin a “national political dialogue, leading to a representative process of transition, constitutional reform and preparation for free and fair elections.”

Qatar became the second country this week after France to officially recognize the opposition council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people.

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