Inside Libya's Chaotic, Secretive Rebel Leadership


While defected generals struggle to lead an army, eastern Libyan civilians find a provisional government marred by secrecy and disarray

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BENGHAZI, Libya -- As volunteers streamed in to sign up to serve in the liberation army in Benghazi, many were likely preparing themselves to join the full fledged battle raging at the front line between rebels and the forces of Muammar Qaddafi, somewhere between the towns of Ras Lanouf and Bin Jawwad, where regular air and ground attacks taxed their nerves and supplies.

On Friday, the nearby munitions depot at Rajma, the largest the eastern army has easy access to, was leveled by explosions of still-unknown origin. The loss struck a blow to the opposition army, which is struggling to hold ground in Ras Lanouf as they try to push westward towards Cert. The Transitional National Council, the self-appointed military leadership of the eastern army, is investigating the event, which they say could have been sabotage. The explosion, the threat of pro-Qaddafi saboteurs, the assault to the west, and Qaddafi's counter-attacks are just some of the challenges facing this new and secretive military leadership body, most of which defected from Qaddafi's army only days or weeks ago.

General Omar Hariri was confirmed as the head of the Military Council at a press conference on March 5, but the lines of his authority are difficult to discern in this haphazard and still uncertain command structure. His control is even less clear in the field of battle, where defected soldiers and civilian volunteers come together in a poorly disciplines, frequently chaotic rebel army.

The days following the explosions at Rajma brought -- or perhaps exposed -- confusion among the rebel military organization. Saturday was a rough day for 36-year-old Khaled Al-Sai'ih, the civilian coordinator between the National Libyan Council (the public face of the opposition, announced on February 27) and the military council, the membership of which remains secret for, they say, security reasons.

At the Lawyers' Union of Benghazi, where the eastern leadership meets, Al-Sai'ih was escorted by a young man carrying not one but two Kalashnikov rifles. Walking the halls of the courthouse between locked-door meetings, he tried to juggle the journalists, assistants, and volunteers asking him questions, pulling on his sleeve and handing him mobile phones and sheaves of paper. Asked if he liked the job, Al-Sai'ih gestured towards someone who was shaking a phone at him urgently. "Not this part," he said. The front door of the courthouse was locked for the first time in days. Outside, a crowd of people waited to enter and meet with their new government. One man in fatigues, pounding his fists against the door, shouted himself hoarse.

Al-Sai'ih insisted that the membership of the military council, including its leader, is "classified and confidential." The military prosecutors charged with investigating the explosions at the Rajma depot also cannot be named, he said. Of the civilian volunteer soldiers, he said, "a lot of them have done national service before. They are not totally untrained." He said that the volunteers and the defectors from Qaddafi's army "are all working together, they are all coming together to fight."

Al-Sai'ih was quickly exasperated by the questioning. "A spokesman will be announced at the press conference in a few minutes. Enough? Finished?" He turned around and left without looking back, surrounded by men whispering in his ear and pulling him along. Five minutes later, a courthouse volunteer said the conference had been cancelled and "it should happen tomorrow. Maybe around 1 o'clock, I don't know."

A press conference was eventually held at the Tibisti Hotel, but was ill attended because few journalists knew where it was, when it was, or that it would take place at all. Omar Hariri was announced the head of the 13-person military council. An official said that Hariri was unavailable for questions because he was busy meeting with the commandos unit of the army.

General Attia Saleh, who had served in Libya's army for 32 years and is now a member of the Transitional Government's Military Council, tried to explain the new organization. "Hundreds of new volunteers come in every day," he said. "They are trained in four or five camps here in Benghazi."

"The old army members and the new volunteers all work together. The head of the military council gives orders about who should go where depending on the situation, and there are units made up of new volunteers and trained military," Saleh said. "The trained army members are in charge, but sometimes we lose people and weapons at the front lines because they go in without orders. Three people were caught yesterday at Bin Jawwad because they went ahead without orders. The volunteers can be excitable."

"Every day the council sends new weapons, and there are weapons stored in many places other than Rajma. Tanks have gone to Ras Lanouf, and General Wanis Bokhamada is in charge there now," he explained.

Foreign intervention, he said, is unwelcome. "We don't want other countries to send us soldiers, but we want weapons from other countries, especially Arab countries."

"Most of the Libyan military from Masa'ad to Brega don't want Qaddafi," Saleh said, and then corrected himself. "All of them. No one in the east is for Qaddafi."

Photo by Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

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Clare Morgana Gillis is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East. She recently completed her PhD in history at Harvard University.

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