As Violence Engulfs Libya, Qaddafi Promises War

After four decades in power, the country's dictator shows no indication of following his neighbors' quiet departures


Toward the end of a rambling and apparently off-the-cuff speech late on Sunday, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, whose father has ruled Libya for 42 years, took an abrupt departure from the script of blame-shifting and promise-making that the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia had followed days before their forced resignations. Rather than offering appeasement or excuses, he pledged, in language as apocalyptic as it was frighteningly believable, to go to war against the protesters.

"We will not lose one inch of this land," he warned. "We will flight to the last man and woman and bullet." His father, he said is "leading the battle" and will hold on to power "by any means necessary." He echoed the same vague, hollow promises made by Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali, adding, in the dramatic and menacing flair his father has honed for decades, a threat. "We will tomorrow create a new Libya. We can agree on a new national anthem, new flag, new Libya. Or be prepared for civil war."

What began in Libya as a national protest movement quickly escalated in the country's east, where Qaddafi's hold is weaker, to all-out battle. After days of bloody fighting, the protesters appear to have ousted government forces entirely and seized control of Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city. Security forces have consolidated in the capital, Tripoli, where, after days of relative calm due to the heavy police presence and undeclared state of martial law, protesters are taking to the streets en mass. Qaddafi's show of force, silently backed by a long history of unflinching crackdowns, does not look to have deterred the increasingly enraged demonstrators. The regime as well as the protesters are rapidly escalating the fighting in Tripoli, which both sides appear to believe will be the site of a decisive battle for Libya.

Already, fragmentary but credible reports from Tripoli claim that security forces are firing indiscriminately into the crowds gathering in Green Square. Terrified eyewitnesses say that Toyota Land Cruisers carrying armed men, believed to be mercenaries from Sub-Saharan Africa, are strafing protesters in drive-by shootings. Military planes are circling over the city in an implicit threat of what has become the greatest immediate fear in Libya: that Qaddafi will order his air force to massacre civilians. Early reports that the planes have made strafing runs on the crowd may be false; such an attack would be difficult to the point of unfeasible in a city as dense as Tripoli, and protesters may simply be hearing ground-based machine gun fire. On Monday afternoon, at least two Libyan jet fighters requested emergency landing at Malta; Al Jazeera reports the pilots are requesting to defect after refusing orders to bomb protesters in Benghazi. These early reports have yet to be confirmed and may turn out to be false. But whether or not the air force attacks, what seems significant is that many protesters believe it could or that it already has, yet press on anyway in what they fully expect to be all-out war with the regime.

Saif's promise that the regime will fight to the "last man" is, in typical Qaddafi style, likely an exaggeration, but it also carries some credibility. Though isolated segments of Libya's military and its civilian government have already begun breaking away, with diplomats resigning and a very small number of eastern-based military units joining in protests, the regime is far less vulnerable to the soft coup by which Egypt's strong, unified military helped topple Mubarak. Barking mad but never short of cunning, Qaddafi has spent years assiduously decentralizing his forces into small, isolated units of security troops, mercenary irregulars, and civilian militias. Such a disparate force, armed in part by weapons caches scattered around the country, could fight on after every senior politician and general, or even Qaddafi himself, stepped down.

Some of the worst violence in Tripoli could come not just from the air but from the much-feared Khamis Brigade, led by Qaddafi son Khamis. Described by a November 2009 U.S. State Department cable as "widely known to be the most well-trained and well-equipped force in the Libyan military," the Khamis Brigade is as brutal as it is effective. So far, it has deployed snipers against civilians and, according to Al Arabiya, organized mercenaries it ordered to attack demonstrators. If there is a final, decisive, pitched battle between protesters and the last remaining tools of Qaddafi's security apparatus, it would likely be led by the Khamis Brigade.

According to an audio message posted from Tripoli to the social networking site AudioBoo, locals are gathering whatever weapons they can, including garden tools. As the violence escalates, so will the stakes, with the conflict carrying an increasingly existential threat to both sides. Saif's bizarre and disjointed speech, which warned of everything from an "Islamic Emirate" takeover to the end of Libyan oil production if the protests succeed, carried the same hints of desperation evident in the regime's brutal but failed attempts to disperse the protests. It's impossible to know what will happen next in Tripoli, but Qaddafi has made it quite clear he will not leave as quietly as his neighbors to the west and east. If his four-decade reign ends, it may well be, as his son promised, to the last bullet.

Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty