Rebel forces in Libya successfully stormed former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s compound on Tuesday after a fierce street battle. Only two days ago, tanks and trucks mounting heavy machine guns emerged from the sprawling compound to fire on the first rebels to approach what was once the living quarters of the Gaddafi family, driving them back. Reinforcements were rushed to the area, and a final assault was mounted, after which the rebel victors looted the facility and raised their flag.
“Citizens are free to walk in there now,” said Ibrahim Dabbashi, the rebels’ deputy ambassador at the United Nations (UN). “We just have to take care of any explosives that may have been left there.”
The compound’s capture was highly symbolic. It wasn’t only the residence of their despised oppressor and his family, but also the heart of Gaddafi’s decades-long rule. Its overrunning probably symbolized to Libyans more than anything else the end of the Libyan dictator’s power over them.
Unfortunately for the rebels, Gaddafi was nowhere to be found in what was once his home. He probably slipped away through one of the emergency underground tunnels he reportedly had built for just such an occasion, if he hadn’t already left Tripoli days earlier due to NATO air strikes that had damaged the complex. In a radio broadcast Wednesday, Reuters reported, Gaddafi railed against the NATO air strikes and vowed victory or “martyrdom.” Some of his supporters were reportedly heading westwards out of the city that has a population of about two million people.
If he did manage to get out of Tripoli, Gaddafi’s most likely destination is the al-Gaddafi tribal stronghold of Sirte or the southern city of Sabha, where his regime’s flag is still flying and armed Gaddafi loyalists man the checkpoints. But these strongholds will also soon be attacked, the rebels say, if they do not surrender, as they intend bring all Libyan territory under their control.
If he escapes death or capture, another relatively safe haven Gaddafi may try to reach is the al-Magrahi tribal area. The al-Magrahi tribe, to which the Lockerbie bomber belongs, has remained allied to Gaddafi throughout the conflict. It is also the tribe of his brother-in-law and closest adviser, Abdullah Senussi, who was also indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) along with Gaddafi and one of his sons for war crimes.
A leader as fearful and careful about his security as Gaddafi most likely had several secret compounds built around the country during his 42-year rule as insurance against rebellions. And they will all, without doubt, be well-stocked with weapons and munitions. When the rebels overran Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound, they found a large quantity of armaments.
Like Saddam Hussein after losing power in Iraq, if Gaddafi makes it to a new headquarters, he will continue hostilities with whatever forces are still available to him, as well as launch a guerrilla or terrorist war against the Libya’s new regime, possibly using car bombs. He probably hopes the rebel coalition will dissolve after their victory into factional fighting, especially of the tribal kind, a distinct possibility since the rebels seem united only in their desire to get rid of Gaddafi. With the rebels divided and unable to rule, Gaddafi, or one of his sons, could then make a political comeback in the months to come.
Despite Gaddafi’s disappearance, his supporters are still battling rebel forces in Tripoli. The rebels claim to control 90 percent of the city, but are facing stiff opposition from members of Gaddafi’s well-armed government militia, who maintain control in some city areas. The rebels intend to transfer their government from Benghazi to Gaddafi’s former stronghold as soon as the city is pacified.
While al-Gaddafi and allied tribes make up some of the militia members still resisting, others continuing the fight are probably Gaddafi supporters, such as members of the secret police, who fear revenge for the terrible deeds they committed during their leader’s rule. Like cornered animals, albeit heavily-armed ones, they will battle fiercely. A promise of amnesty may get some to lay down their weapons, but others know their crimes are so heinous, there is no escaping the code of tribal revenge existing in Libya.
The Gaddafi cause was helped on Monday by the appearance of Seif al-Gaddafi at a press conference at a hotel in Tripoli, where Western journalists were staying. The rebels had announced earlier that Seif was captured and appeared embarrassed by their mistake. Seif’s brother, Mohammed, was also apparently captured, but has since been reported as having escaped.
Falsely reporting Seif’s al-Gaddafi’s capture, though, may have been done deliberately to demoralise the pro-Gaddafi fighters in Tripoli. Spreading disinformation is a part of warfare. A steady release of reports during the six-month conflict stating Gaddafi was seeking a refuge abroad was also probably done for the same purpose. But Seif’s appearance at the hotel as a free man apparently rallied the pro-Gaddafi resistance.
Many of the rebel fighters taking part in the street fighting belong to the Tripoli Brigade. This rebel unit is made up of Tripoli-area residents who have been fleeing the capital since the uprising began to the rebel side where they received military training. Special Forces soldiers from Qatar also helped train them both in Libya and in the Gulf state. Due to their knowledge of the city, they were among the first of the approximately 4,000 rebel troops to enter Tripoli.
While the contribution of NATO Special Forces and advisers to the rebel victory is unknown, it was likely “extensive.” One analyst estimates they probably numbered “several hundred.” The rebel army that advanced to Tripoli looked nothing like the rebel army of a few months ago, most likely thanks to their assistance. The victorious rebel campaign from Libya’s western Nafusa Mountains and the attack on Tripoli itself, which also included an amphibious assault, also bears the mark of the NATO advisors’ professionalism.
The turning point in the conflict, analysts believe, was the fall of Zawiya. But it was probably the uprising in Tripoli that had been in preparation for several months that caused the troops of Gaddafi’s Khamis Brigade, commanded by his son, not to defend the city, retreat from their positions and leave their base undefended. With the enemy in front of them and now behind them, their position would have become untenable. The question now is whether they are regrouping to continue the struggle. Gaddafi forces have been reported on the outskirts of Tripoli and have been successful in recapturing cities in the past. And this could be where the elusive Gaddafi is now – among his troops.
After Gaddafi’s compound was overrun, a German publication reported that a Gaddafi spokesman threatened on a Libyan radio station that the war “would last months, even years.” If necessary, the spokesman said, government troops would “turn Libya into a volcano.”
As if to show he meant it about turning Libya into a volcano, Gaddafi’s forces were reported to have fired Scud missiles from Sirte that struck Misrata. There was no report of casualties or whether the missiles contained any chemical weapons, which the rebels fear a desperate Gaddafi may use as a last resort.
It is obvious Gaddafi will not surrender and still poses a grave danger to Libyans. Blindly firing Scuds into Misrata indicates he just wants to terrorize and kill, possibly out of revenge for the misfortune that has befallen him. Only Gaddafi’s capture or death now will finally end much of the resistance and put the final seal on the rebels’ victory. Hopefully, this will happen sooner rather than later.