Libyan rebel commander fights for freedom

August 22, 2011

In the surreal, dystopic Libya of the manic ruler Moammar Gaddafi, the uprising that has shaken the Arab world produced not one, but two distinct revolutions.

One was a rebellion waged by words, by urban youth, on Facebook and the streets, an uprising of transitional councils and tweets, fought in the rebel capital of Benghazi by bureaucrats who promise a democratic Libya.

The other rebellion was more simple but not more pure: the armed insurrection of the past six months, fought in olive groves and ghost towns and propelled forward by fierce, pious, lethal hillbillies like Muktar al-Akhdar, a commander from the western mountains whose rugged militiamen burst into Tripoli over the weekend and appear on the verge of toppling Gaddafi.

“We knew from the start that our revolution would cost lives. We weren’t scared, but we knew. We knew we could not fight tanks with flowers,” Akhdar said a few days before the rebels’ final push toward Tripoli. Protest would not bring change. That was the thinking of outsiders, of Americans and Europeans and expatriates, he said. “Not in Libya. Not with Gaddafi. We have been together for 42 years. No flowers.”

What moves men such as Muktar al-Akhdar, and what he expects of his revolution, may shape the new Libya as much as the negotiators now writing first drafts of a constitution. Akhdar matters because he has suffered, he has dreams — and he is heavily armed.

Akhdar is believed to be alive and in Tripoli. The last time reporters saw him was 10 days ago. More recently, people who know him said by e-mail that Akhdar was in the capital with his men.

Most of the rebel fighters pouring into Tripoli carry battered AK-47s, the ubiquitous kalashnikov with varnished wooden stocks. But on the plains south of Tripoli, Muktar al-Akhdar cradled a vicious, short-barreled FN assault rifle, a weapon favored by Gaddafi’s special forces.

Where did he get such a gun? He drew a slow thumb across his throat. “Dead,” Akhdar answered, the government soldier who carried this weapon was killed by rebels. “The others ran away.” He slapped the metal hard. “This one did not.”

The 54-year-old commander and father of six, who looks made of wire and leather, did not smile at the memory of Libyans fighting Libyans. Capable of a few words in English, he called his fallen enemy “a good boy, very brave.”

Then he held up his hands, like they are strangers, and said, “Blood.”

There is blood on his hands.

A town of martyrs

Akhdar’s rolling command center is his pickup truck, camouflaged with smeared mud and hung with goatskins of water. The bed is pocked by jagged bullet holes. Someone has left a grenade to bounce around on the front seat.

Locals swear that forces loyal to Gaddafi fired 3,000 Grad rockets in and around Zintan, still scattered with burnt husks of Russian- and Chinese-made tanks, destroyed by guided NATO missiles and homemade gasoline bombs. Of all the towns of the Nafusa mountains, the Zintanis, known for their grit, arrogance and wit, produced the most martyrs. More than 125 of their portraits hang in the town square.

Akhdar was one of the first to pick up a gun.

For 25 years, Akhdar served as a low-ranking officer in the Libyan army, until his discharge in 1998. He taught light-arms tactics, how to fire mortars, the importance of high ground. He never ventured far from Libya — except in the desert frontiers of Algeria, Tunisia and Chad. But he has learned his history, he said, from watching satellite TV.

He fought in Chad, a decade-long border conflict, a gory, seesaw of ambush and retreat waged in oases and wadis in the south, where the Libyan army broke down and never really recovered. The ghosts of that war — a kind of Vietnam for Libya — hover over the revolution of 2011 more than most outsiders understand.

Akhdar says he watched in bitter silence as Gaddafi degraded his army, always wary of rivals in the ranks. “They told us to fight. We fought. But Gaddafi had no respect for us, no decent salaries, just war without reason, on and on, doing his terrorism,” said Akhdar. More than 7,500 Libyan soldiers died, a tenth of the men under arms at the time.

Akhdar says he meet Gaddafi once, in 1975, at a checkpoint at Zawiyah, when he was on guard duty. He admired the daring young Libyan army colonel who overthrew King Idris in a 1969 military coup. Young Akhdar believed in the revolution. “In the beginning, Gaddafi came in peace, but he is like all dictators. Now his heart is dry, and he loves only power.”

As the revolt against Gaddafi intensified, he often referred to revolutionists as extremist Muslims or al-Qaeda terrorists or, simply, rats. “But he is our rat,” Akhdar said. “He never in his life imagined that he would be hiding in a hole in Tripoli. But we know rats. We will hunt him in his hole and we will kill him, like a rat.”

Sensing weakness

After his discharge from the army, Akhdar worked as a guide steering Italian and French adventurers in weeks-long, four-wheel-drive treks across the great sand seas south of Zintan. He hungers for the desert constantly and believes it taught him lessons in devotion, humility, endurance.

Akhdar was chosen by the consent of his men to command the Zintan Martyr Militia, a group of 300 or 400, depending on what day you ask, with about 60 hard-core fighters who leap to the front lines at Akhdar’s quiet order.

His brigade is headquartered in an abandoned school. “Look what we’ve done to it!” Akhdar said in shame. “This was a place for scholars.” Now the place smells of men and war: a stink from dirty toilets, gun oil, burning trash, unwashed feet.

Akhdar said he threw himself into the revolution because had no choice. When Libyan citizens protested, they were shot. Among the macho tribes of the mountains, this was Gaddafi’s greatest blunder. Gaddafi sparked the revolution. “His people offered the tribes money to go back home, and when we did not, they came with tanks and we defended ourselves, and as we began to fight, we saw they were not strong. They were weak! So we began to kill them and they ran.”

For weeks this summer, the rebel advance was stalled at a forgettable village called Qawlish. It sits on a hilltop, abandoned, overlooking a deep canyon and in the distance, what was the Gaddafi-held town of Asabah.

Qawlish was taken, lost, retaken. One afternoon, a group of unarmed people from Asabah appeared in cars and vans, waving green flags.

Then came an ambush, as Gaddafi troops leapt out of other cars and swarmed over the hills. Akhdar’s men unleashed a terrifying, headlong firefight against Gaddafi loyalists, reduced now to mixed units of regular army, conscripted cannon fodder and paid fighters from Mali and Niger.

It was over in less than 30 minutes. The Gaddafi troops pulled back, taking several dead soldiers with them. The rebels counted four wounded. “We are sons of the desert, we don’t get tricked like this,” Akhdar said later. “If Gaddafi has three thoughts, we have 10.”

Akhdar predicted that Tripoli would fall before end of the holy month of Ramadan, by the last day in August. He appears to have been correct.

In the evenings, Akhdar breaks his day-long fast at a house at the edge of his beloved desert. A baby camel is tied with one leg to a utility pole. He will be eaten. A rebel fighter shows off a poisonous snake, a horned viper, that he has gripped in a pair of pliers. It is still alive.

Akhdar lounges and eats raw pistachios. Leaning against the wall are kalashnikovs, RPGs, old Italian rifles. His soldiers have full stomachs, are smoking and dreaming in the dusk. They are also enjoying something new: They are complaining, openly, about the lives they’ve been denied. The men want money; they want to marry; they want sex; they want to travel.

They are watching the new Free Libya satellite channel, which is showing rebel propaganda videos, depicting a grinning Gaddafi, then fast-cutting to images taken from state TV, from 1984 when Brother Leader hanged his opponents in a stadium.

“The longer this war lasts, it is no good,” Akhdar said quietly, as he watched his men. “Wars create criminals. I have studied this.” He has seen it on TV. He names Somalia, Vietnam, Rwanda, Serbia. “We don’t want to be like that.”

Over the course of several interviews — sessions that Akhdar appears to find frivolous or tiresome or both — he is asked what he wants from this revolution. Each time he says the same thing. “I want freedom,” Akhdar said. “Write it down again. Freedom.”

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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