How Much Control Does Qaddafi Still Have Over Libya?

The Libyan ruler has blamed the uprising on al Qaeda and declared himself a "symbolic leader" as he fortifies control over Tripoli and rebels advance to the capital

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Ten days into the bloody uprising in Libya, how much control does Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi still exert over the country's he's ruled for over four decades?

Qaddafi himself has given us one perspective on the situation in a half hour-long phone interview with Al Arabiya that just concluded. He declared that he is a "symbolic leader" with only "moral authority" like Queen Elizabeth II, that the protesters--who he claims are all under 20--are consuming hallucinatory pills that make them commit "animal acts," and that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda are ultimately responsible for inciting the unrest.

Here's what else we know this morning:

QADDAFI'S FORCES DIG IN AROUND TRIPOLI: In Zawiya, a city 30 miles west of the capital, security forces loyal to the Libyan leader have attacked anti-government protesters in a mosque with anti-aircraft missiles and automatic weapons, the Associated Press reports, and gun battles persist. These forces are also clashing fiercely with opposition militias in other cities near Tripoli including Sabratha and Misurata. In Tripoli itself, Qaddafi has dispatched thousands of ragtag, heavily armed African mercenaries and special army units that report to Qaddafi's family in what some residents of Tripoli characterize as "a sign that the uprising might be entering a decisive stage, with Colonel Qaddafi fortifying his main stronghold in the capital and protesters there gearing up for their first organized demonstration after days of spontaneous rioting and bloody crackdowns," according to The New York Times.

OPPOSITION MOVES TOWARD CAPITAL As Qaddafi tightens the screws on Tripoli, rebels are advancing ever further west and reportedly shutting down oil exports. Opposition forces currently control most of eastern Libya--including the country's second largest city, Benghazi--and there are now reports that these militias have captured cities closer to the capital, paving the way, perhaps, for a critical showdown in Tripoli. Qaddafi's "hold on power appears confined to parts of Tripoli and perhaps several regions in the centre of the country," the Guardian reports.

MORE DEFECTIONS: Government officials, diplomats, and segments of the army continue to peel off from Qaddafi. Local military units reportedly joined protesters in their effort to take control of Zawiya, and two Libyan pilots even defected midair on Wednesday in defiance of orders to bomb Benghazi. On Thursday, Qaddafi's cousin and close aide, Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, defected to Egypt and denounced the government's "grave violations to human rights and human and international laws" in trying to quell the revolt, according to the AP. With all these defections, who exactly is keeping Qaddafi in power? The Times explains that ever since seizing power in a military coup, Qaddafi has intentionally kept the Libyan army small, poorly trained, and divided along tribal lines so that it would be too weak to stage its own coup. These divisions help explain why many army units have defected, but they also explain why the air force and top army officers--whose ranks are dominated by Qaddafi's clan--remain loyal to the Libyan leader. Over the years, Qaddafi has also cultivated the paramilitary force that is now roaming the streets of Tripoli.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.