Fighting in Libya between forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and rebels hoping to overthrow his government continues. Our correspondent Phil Ittner has been reporting about the conflict from opposition-held Benghazi. Today, he traveled by car from Benghazi toward Egypt. Susan Yackee caught up with him when he stopped by the side of the road between the town of Tobruk and the Egyptian border, where he shared some of his impressions about the rebels’ ongoing struggle.
Ittner: The opposition is facing a massive military machine on the side of the government here. The pro-Gadhafi side seems to have the bulk of heavy weaponry – they have artillery, they have naval capabilities, and they have, of course, air power. But one of the charges put repeatedly by the opposition against the government is that they don’t have the manpower. They don’t have the support of the people neither in the armed forces nor within the population - something, obviously, Moammar Gadhafi contends is not true, but in evidence to back up what the opposition is saying we do see, repeatedly, the pro-Gadhafi forces having trouble actually taking territory in terms of putting boots on the ground.
We have seen [pro-Gadhafi forces] hitting quite hard against the opposition rebel units, in particular with artillery and air strikes, but when it comes to actually holding territory, putting soldiers into towns or key strategic positions within Libya, the pro-Gadhafiists seem to have a real problem doing that, and this seems to add credence to what the opposition is saying. The opposition is saying: “We have the people, he has the guns.” And it does seem that there is evidence to back this up.
What we have also seen in the last week or week and a half is that the military machine is being used to great effect against what is basically a large number of volunteers, very enthusiastic young men inspired by the Jasmin Revolution in the rest of North Africa and the Middle East wanting to overthrow a government that has been in power for more than 42 years, a government that people here in the east of the country say is despotic, uses torture, terrorism and intimidation techniques to subdue the population.
And they say that with the wind of chance in the region they really want to take advantage of this. The problem for them, they say, is unlike the leaders in Egypt or Tunisia, Moammar Gadhafi has no reservations about using some very heavy-handed tactics against them. It’s the very same reason why they want to see him overthrown. And we have seen artillery used against these very enthusiastic troops, we have seen airstrikes used against them, to great effect, because they are not professional soldiers; they are amateurs, and it is a groundswell movement here in the east.
Yackee: There is a lot of talk about a no-fly-zone. How crucial is this to the rebels?
Ittner: It is a very important factor here on the ground. As I have been saying, the problem that the opposition faces is that Gadhafi spent an awful lot of money building up his military machine. That is his ace in the hole, and if that were taken out of the equation, the sheer numbers on the opposition side, at least this is what the rebel leadership says, those numbers would be enough to take this country if the military machine is taken out by an international no-fly zone.
Now, it’s important to note that an international fly-zone would, of course, mean the most important thing – that jets would not be able to fly, something that has really impeded the opposition’s efforts. But it would also mean hitting command and control, communications centers. It would really strike against Gadhafi’s military infrastructure - the thing that is keeping the opposition back. So the opposition basically says that [a no-fly-zone] is probably the most important thing that the international community can do to protect not only the citizenry, but also help overthrow what they claim is a despotic regime in power for 42 years, in their words, 42 years too long.
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