NALUT, Libya (AP) — The rebel fighters of the Tripoli Brigade have one goal — to be among the first to enter the Libyan capital and kick out Moammar Gadhafi and his cronies.
They say their intimate knowledge of the city makes them best suited for the job. Nearly all the 475 men either grew up in Tripoli or have family there. Several weeks ago, they moved from the eastern to the western front in Libya's five-month-old civil war because it's closer to the capital.
Dozens of the brigade fighters left behind comfortable lives in exile to volunteer for war: a building contractor from Dublin, a university student from Washington, D.C., a shipping engineer from Munich, an X-ray technician from Athens.
Their new home is a two-story university dormitory in Nalut, a frontline town in Libya's rebel-controlled western Nafusa mountains, about 280 kilometers (175 miles) from Tripoli.
Dreams of reaching the capital — seemingly detached from reality during months of battlefield deadlock — recently got new wings. Late last week, brigade fighters, along with hundreds of local rebels, for the first time pushed back Gadhafi's forces in the coastal plain below the mountain.
On the first day of the offensive, fighters took three small towns in the plain. But Gadhafi's men's — entrenched in Tiji, a town about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Nalut — have since halted the advance with rockets.
On Monday, Hosam Najjair, the Irish building contractor, toured a frontline rebel camp several miles from Tiji where dozens of fighters were napping under olive trees and in empty rooms of an abandoned farm house. It was the first day of the fasting month of Ramadan, and the men, most going without food and drink despite the intense heat, were conserving energy.
Tiji will not hold up the momentum, vowed Najjair, son of a Libyan father and an Irish mother. "We want to keep the advance going," Najjair said in an Irish brogue, a Romanian-made sniper rifle slung over his shoulder. "Our goal now is to reach Tripoli at all costs."
The brigade was formed in late April in Benghazi, the rebels' de facto capital in opposition-controlled eastern Libya, said Bashir, a 28-year-old software engineer who grew up in Canada.
The fighters first set up shop in a school, but the Benghazi leadership kept its distance.
"They didn't want chaos, they didn't want just anyone to start a brigade" and perhaps even feared outsiders could serve as a vehicle for al-Qaida, said Bashir, a brigade spokesman who did not give a last name for fear of retribution against his parents in Tripoli.
He laughed off the al-Qaida suspicions. "We don't have a religious agenda," said the black-beared Bashir, noting that many in the brigade smoke, listen to music or are clean-shaven, hardly the hallmarks of fervent Islamists.
The brigade has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, including from Libyan exiles, and over the past two months transferred most of the fighters to the western front, where they now work closely with the local fighters. In addition to Nalut, there are some brigade fighters in the mountain town of Zintan.
Bashir said about five to 10 new volunteers ask to join every day, both from Tripoli and from abroad.
Those from Tripoli take a roundabout way, since Gadhadi's army blocks the direct route. They leave western Libya via a Gadhafi-controlled border crossing to Tunisia; passage is possible since the Gadhafi regime generally permits Libyans to visit the neighboring country. From Tunisia, they head south, then enter the mountain area through a rebel-run crossing. Recently, rebels have also flown several planes carrying weapons and fighters from Benghazi to the Nafusa area.
The brigade headquarters in Nalut are high-tech and organized, perhaps not surprising considering the large number of professionals among the fighters. Each new recruit is issued a swipe card with a service number, blood type and other details. The data base shows engineers, taxi drivers and electricians among the Tripoli volunteers.
In the media room, one of its walls covered by a huge rebel tricolor flag, Abdel Hakim Mishry, a former trader from Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, edits video from the front for the brigade's Facebook page and distribution to journalists.
With the start of Ramadan and the recent territorial gains, morale is high among the fighters, especially those from the U.S. and Europe who say they have found new meaning in their lives.
Adam, a 22-year-old junior with a double major in psychology and sociology at George Washington University, said he's not sorry he left school in March to join the war. He told his Libyan parents, who also live in Washington, about his plans only after he'd bought the plane ticket.
"You value things more and get a better perspective on life," said Adam, sporting thick black-rimmed glasses, military fatigues and a bandana in camouflage colors. If he survives the war, he plans to go back to school to finish his degree and then settle in a free Libya. Adam did not give his full name, citing concern for relatives in Tripoli.
Many of the exiles had left Libya in the first place because of Gadhafi, saying his cruel rule blocked any hope of a decent life.
Ali Ibrahim was 18 when he settled in Germany 31 years ago. He became a shipping engineer and now lives in Munich, running a company there and in Dubai. In his 20s, he played as a midfielder for a second league football club near Munich.
Ibrahim said he had a good life, but still felt compelled to drop everything when the uprising against Gadhafi erupted in February. "There is a chance for our people to have a better life than before," said Ibrahim who, when not fighting, serves as the brigade's fitness trainer.
The common purpose makes up for the high risk of battle on this lawless front, where sniper ambushes, random attacks with inaccurate Grad rockets and mines strewn across roads by retreating Gadhafi troops are commonplace. On Sunday, two brigade fighters, ages 18 and 20, were killed by rocket shrapnel near Tiji, and all here know they could easily meet the same fate.
"They have ammunition to burn," Najjair said of Gadhafi's forces. "We have barely any."