Focus of rebel uprising shifts in Libya

Struggle between factions distracts Khadafy’s rivals

A home was set on fire by Libya rebels during a tribal dispute after they seized the town of Yafran from pro-Khadafy forces. A home was set on fire by Libya rebels during a tribal dispute after they seized the town of Yafran from pro-Khadafy forces. (Bryan Denton/New York Times)
By C.J. Chivers and David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / August 14, 2011

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TRIPOLI, Libya - Saddled with infighting and undermined by the occasionally ruthless and undisciplined behavior of its fighters, the six-month-old rebel uprising against Moammar Khadafy is showing signs of sliding from a struggle to overthrow an autocrat into a murkier contest between factions and tribes.

The increase in discord and factionalism is undermining the effort to overthrow Khadafy, and it comes immediately after recognition of the rebel government by the Western powers, potentially giving the rebels access to billions of dollars in frozen Libyan assets and the chance to purchase more modern weaponry.

The infighting could also erode support for the rebels among members of the NATO alliance, which faces a September deadline for renewing its air campaign amid growing unease about the war’s costs and direction.

That air support has been a factor in every significant rebel military goal, including fighting yesterday in which rebel forces were challenging pro-Khadafy forces in or near three critical towns: Brega, an oil port in the east; Zawiya, on the outskirts of Tripoli; and Gharyan, an important gateway to southern Libya.

Rebels fought their way into Zawiya west of Tripoli yesterday in their most significant advance in months, battling snipers on rooftops and heavy shelling from Khadafy’s forces holding the city.

Zawiya is a key target for rebels waging a new offensive in an attempt to break the deadlock in combat between the two sides.

A group of about 200 rebel fighters reached a bridge on Zawiya’s southwestern outskirts, and some rebels pushed farther into the city’s central main square. They tore down the green flag of Khadafy’s regime from a mosque minaret and put up two rebel flags. Khadafy’s forces then counterattacked with a barrage of heavy weapons.

While the rebels have sought to maintain a clean image and to portray themselves as fighting to establish a secular democracy, several recent acts of revenge have cast their ranks in a less favorable light. They have also raised the possibility that any rebel victory over Khadafy could disintegrate into the sort of tribal tensions that have plagued Libya for centuries.

In recent weeks, rebel fighters in Libya’s western mountains and around the coastal city of Misurata have lashed out at civilians because their tribes supported Khadafy, looting mountain villages and emptying a civilian neighborhood. In the rebels’ provisional capital, Benghazi, renegade fighters assassinated their top military commander, General Abdel Fattah Younes, apparently in revenge for his previous role as Khadafy’s security chief.

In response, the chief of Younes’s powerful tribe threatened to retaliate against those responsible, setting off a crisis in the rebels’ governing council, whose members resigned en masse last week.

In an interview, Jeffrey D. Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said that concerns about the rebels might be overblown. He acknowledged that there were some “disturbing reports’’ from Benghazi and the rebel front lines but credited the rebels’ governing Transitional National Council with swift steps to address the concerns.

Feltman noted that the rebel leadership had ordered an end to abuses against loyalist tribes in the mountains, and he characterized the shake-up of the council as a move to establish a level of transparency and accountability without precedent in Libya.

The United States has formally recognized the rebels’ Transitional National Council as Libya’s legitimate government, potentially allowing it to tap about $3.5 billion in liquid assets and, over the long term, the rest of the $30 billion of the Khadafy government’s frozen investments. top stories on Twitter

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