Libyan rebels hurt by lack of discipline, training
DAFNIYA, Libya (AP) — Wearing flip flops and a baseball cap, the young rebel hoisted a backpack of five rocket propelled grenades and pretended to fire into the air.
"Boom! Pow! Boom!" he yelled.
His friends, carrying AK-47 automatic rifles, their chests strapped with bandoliers of ammunition, howled with laughter.
The Libyan rebels at Dafniya, just west of their port stronghold of Misrata, arguably are fighting at the most dangerous and important front line.
On Monday, after weeks of stalemate, they pushed Moammar Gadhafi's besieging troops back toward Tripoli, 140 miles to the West of Misrata. They cracked the government lines as fighters across the country mounted a resurgence in their four-month-old revolt against Gadhafi.
The next day, however, NATO told the fighters to retreat to their previous lines. That didn't sit well with poorly trained and badly organized young rebels. And therein lie many of the rebel failures in their battle with Gadhafi's military.
The Misrata rebel military council said it has been encouraged by the young rebels' bravery but discouraged by the difficulty in organizing them and overcoming their tendency to disobey. That's been a recipe for hundreds of unnecessary deaths.
"Our main challenge is organizational," Misrata military council spokesman Ibrahim Beatelmal told The Associated Press. He retired from Gadhafi's military 18 years ago.
Fiddling with his walkie-talkie, Beatelmal shook his head and sighed.
"Every day the fighters know there are red lines not to cross. But they don't have proper training. They are not proper soldiers, so they sometimes advance without orders from the military council," he said.
Beatelmal said the council runs war rooms and meets with the front line commanders — many of whom are retired military officers like him — where they discuss strategy and make recommendations for troop movements.
"But they (the fighters) have no obligation to carry out our recommendations, they are not a real army and no one is anyone's leader," he said. That means young men die needlessly every day
The most glaring example was a planned attack on Zlitan last Friday. Zlitan is the next major population center west along the Mediterranean Sea from Dafniya.
Beatelmal said that a battle was planned in coordination with the rebels who were already inside Zlitan. But as the Gadhafi troops advanced, miscommunication and chaos led both the Zlitan and Misrata rebels going on the attack. Rebels in Dafniya were supposed to hold a defensive line while those in Zlitan were to attack Gadhafi forces from the rear.
Thirty-one rebels died along the Dafniya line, the largest number of deaths along that front since Gadhafi troops were driven out of Misrata weeks back.
What started as a peaceful uprising against Gadhafi on Feb. 17, is now a civil war. Despite the odds, rebel fighters have taken control of the eastern third of Libya and pockets of the west.
Fighting, however, became stalemated — until last week when NATO began the heaviest bombardment of Gadhafi forces since the alliance took control of the skies over Libya on March 31.
The alliance is acting under a U.N. resolution to protect civilians from Gadhafi's wrath. NATO has been pounding Gadhafi military and government position with increasing vigor and the rebels are again on the move.
Gadhafi's power has been considerably degraded by the NATO attacks as well as military and government defections.
But Beatelmal fears poor training and discipline still could blunt the rebel's advance on Tripoli
"They are not distributed properly. They should be digging trenches and taking defensive lines. We taught them this, but some follow our suggestions others don't" he said.
In their spare time, the rebels lounge in jeans and T-shirts in the shade, barefoot and bareheaded on mattresses and hammocks, drinking coffee and eating ice cream sent by the women in the city.
They are in high spirits, welcoming front line tourists and journalists with smiles and cartons of juice. They have bruised faces, bandaged legs, dirty bodies. They don't flinch at the sound of incoming artillery and rocket fire.
Some are as young as 14. Some have dual citizenship — Canadians, Australians. Many Libyans had returned from their adopted countries three to five years ago to start businesses and live with family in Libya. They have now found themselves in the middle of the rebellion.
Some returned specifically to join the fight, to help with the rebellion using their English skills to coordinate with foreign media.
"A friend, a rebel brother died on the front lines just last week, shot in his side. He carried Australian citizenship," rebel fighter Mohammad Khalil told The Associated Press.
Some drive pick up trucks painted black, blaring Lebanese pop music, flashing victory signs and greeting other rebels along the way with cries of Allahu Akbar! God is Great!
Some are stoned on hashish.
"They say 'I can't fight without smoking hash first,'" said a rebel from Misrata, who wouldn't give his name. He spoke to an AP reporter on Azzurra, a Maltese ship carrying repatriated families and aid from Benghazi.
He said while the price of hash had increased since the civil war started — a 2 pound (kilogram) block of hashish in Misrata goes for about four times what it costs in the rebel capital, Benghazi. Demand, however, has not dropped.
"It's too bad — they are fighting for the noble cause of martyrdom, but they spoil it by getting high," the rebel said.
On the ship, he chatted and drank strong coffee with a number of other men coming to the fight from Benghazi. The had left Misrata to collect weapons to replenish the front lines.
"It took me less than a week," he said. "Most come from Egypt."
He wouldn't say how many weapons he had gathered. They were following him on a tugboat from Benghazi.
"You want a gun? Tell me what kind. I can hook you up with whatever you want," he half-joked with journalists.
Beatelmal said that while some weapons were shipped from different cities in eastern Libya, most of the arms used on the Misrata front lines were captured from Gadhafi forces.
Weapons are not the problem. Restraint among the young fighters is. Enraged by the death of a brother or close friend — planning and tactics give way to unthinking anger.
But Beatelmal has not given up trying to train them.
"Slowly they are coming to see the right way," he said. "They are realizing this difficult war is a huge responsibility."