Qatari military advisers on the ground, helping Libyan rebels get into shape

May 12, 2011

The United States, European allies and other nations have dispatched representatives to the Libyan opposition’s ruling council. But on the ground here, credit for helping to get the rebel army into shape goes to military advisers from the tiny Arabian Peninsula emirate of Qatar.

Qatar was the first Arab country to formally recognize the political legitimacy of the rebel council in Benghazi and the first to provide military assistance, sending six Mirage fighter jets to help NATO enforce the no-fly zone in March. Qatar also helped the rebel leadership sell oil to help finance the fledgling administration. Now, it is alone in providing military training to the rebels, officials say.

“They are helping us to organize ourselves,” Mahmoud Jibril, a leader of the Libyan opposition council, said Wednesday during a visit to Washington, adding that no other countries are providing military training to the opposition’s fighters.

“Qatar had stood by us from the very beginning, even before it was announced that they were here,” said Col. Ahmed Bani, a spokesman for the rebel army. “They have been more effective than any other nation. They just haven’t boasted about it.”

The United States, Britain, France, Italy, Turkey and other nations have diplomatic teams in the de facto capital of the rebel-held east of the country. Most foreign officials in Benghazi are cautious when speaking about their roles, and representatives from Qatar declined a request to discuss their work with the rebel army.

But in the rebel ranks, the Qatari presence is well known.

A doctor at a military base in a Benghazi suburb said Qatari trainers were instructing new recruits in fitness and basic infantry training. “Our Qatari teachers make us work,” said Mohamed Emsalati, a young doctor who volunteered to join the brigade’s medical unit early in the rebellion.

Near the front line, there are signs of new discipline among what had been an ill-trained group of volunteers.

Khaled Saleh, a bearded rebel fighter who had worked as a fisherman, wore crease-new battle fatigues and sandals. “We are rebels, but now we have training,” he said, adding that his unit had been taught basic tactics by fellow Libyans but that other units were being trained by Qatari advisers.

A 40-kilometer (24.8-mile) deep “military zone” behind the front line is closed to civilians, and to young rebel fighters unless they are attached to established units. Convoys of troops and weapons arriving in jeeps and trucks are told to wait, then parked not in the jumble that was characteristic of the rebels a few weeks ago, but in a well-ordered formation.

“We are ready to fight,” said Walid Mohammed el Farjami, another member of the rebel army.

As camels grazed behind him in the desert amid the blackened husks of tanks destroyed by NATO airstrikes, Farjami said he was confident the rebels could now hold the line. But he worried that they lacked the heavy weapons needed to advance toward Tripoli, the capital, where Moammar Gaddafi maintains his grip on power. “We want more from NATO. They are doing good, but we want more.”

William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said last month that his country’s delegation would include military experts to work with the rebel army to “improve their military organization structures, communications and logistics.” France and Italy also said they would send a small number of military liaison officers to advise the rebel force.

But in Benghazi, rebels continue to press for more advisers and heavy equipment. As Bani, the military spokesman, put it, “everyone and everybody that is going to come here to help get rid us of this tyrant is welcome.”

Walker is a special correspondent. Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.

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