BENGHAZI, Libya - They are two fighters on the front lines of what they say is a battle for freedom and survival. But the paths that Haitham al-Ghaybee and Abu Sultantook to this moment were very different.
One is a scruffy rabble-rouser who has a reputation for hard drinking; the other a clean-shaven, green-eyed Islamist who has fought before in the name of his religion, carrying out attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq.
Neither fits neatly into the profile of drug-addled al-Qaeda devotees that Col. Moammar Gaddafi has used to denigrate the rebel force seeking to oust him from power after 41 years.
Instead, the men reflect the wide array of perspectives and backgrounds present among those who in recent weeks have captured control of half of Libya, and are desperately seeking to win the rest.
The rebel movement’s strength has been its diversity — an all-inclusive mix of secularists and Islamists, women and men, young and old, longtime Gaddafi opponents and recent government defectors. They are bound by their love for Libya, and by their hatred for Gaddafi.
But with the rebels losing ground in the face of a withering assault by pro-Gaddafi forces, the movement’s fate could hinge on the question of whether men like Abu Sultan and Ghaybee can stay united.
Abu Sultan is a deeply religious 39-year-old who believes he must fight against those who threaten his religion, and his land.
He told his story from the rebel capital of Benghazi, in eastern Libya, and spoke on the condition that only his nom de guerre be published. His account could not be independently corroborated.
During a break from the fighting, Abu Sultan explained that he is no stranger to bloody battles. He traveled to Iraq in 2003, incensed by the U.S.-led invasion.His brother Hassan blew himself up near a U.S. Marine vehicle, killing the Americans. Abu Sultan called home to tell his mother, and Hassan was celebrated as a martyr in the eastern Libyan city of Ajdabiya. Another brother, Abu Sultan said, has become a top commander of al-Qaeda, and is based in Afghanistan.
For six months, Abu Sultan waged war against the American Marines in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, but he refused to ally himself with the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq when it began a campaign of killing Iraqi civilians.
Because of his stance, Abu Sultan said he was turned into the authorities by the extremist group and shipped back to Libya, where he sat in jail for three months.
“The Americans invaded a Muslim country and I am against this,” he said. “But I’m also against Bin Laden. I don’t kill innocent people.”
Abu Sultan said he disapproves of his brother’s choice to fight with al-Qaeda.
When Abu Sultan’s fellow Libyans revolted against Gaddafi late last month, he finally had the chance he had been waiting for: to fight what he sees as injustice in his own country. He said he wants the international community to set up a no-fly zone to protect the rebels from air strikes, but he stressed that this is a Libyan fight.
“I want to protect myself, my land and my religion. Since I was born there has never been justice, no constitution and no elections,” he said. “I don’t want an Islamic Caliphate like al-Qaeda. I want a civilian government with justice, freedom and a constitution.”
During an interview, he rubbed his clean-shaven chin and seemed relaxed in a green sweater and khaki slacks. His beard from the previous day’s battle in the port city of Brega — where he and thousands of others repelled an assault by pro-Gaddafi forces — was gone.
“The media was focusing on our beards, so we all shaved,” he said. He proudly displayed pictures of a younger brother who had volunteered with the Red Crescent in Tunisia during that nation’s revolution in January. In the pictures, the young man sat with a group of male and female activists.
Abu Sultan’s days are now filled with battles as rebel fighters try to defend their turf in eastern Libya.
“It’s so hard to fight Libyans, but this is a mafia regime,” he said. “When I see Libyans I want to throw my weapon away, but I can’t.”
Abu Sultan’s experience in religiously motivated combat is in stark contrast to the carefree, secular background of Ghaybee, 26. Before the past several weeks, the high school dropout had never fired a weapon. Family members said he would often get into scuffles as a teenager and sometimes drank too much.
He joined the anti-government demonstrations on Feb. 19. On his way to the protest, he saw a security vehicle run over unarmed protesters. Then he thought back on his brother, who had been killed with hundreds of others under still-unexplained circumstances in 1996 at a Libyan prison.
Suddenly, Ghaybee’s mind filled with rage, and he rushed to the local base of Gaddafi’s widely-feared security force.
“All I could think is I want to kill these people,” he said.
At the base, he joined with other demonstrators in an ultimately successful battle. His weapon was a fishing spear, while others threw home-made explosives and picked up guns from defecting soldiers.
Days later, still in need of a decent weapon, Ghaybee paid thousands of dollars for a sniper rifle and a Kalashnikov. Friends taught him how to fire, and almost overnight, the young clothing merchant became a fighter.
“Gaddafi is killing us and I have to go forward. I have to attack to protect myself and my family,” he said, dressed in camouflage cargo pants, a black long-sleeve T-shirt and a goose-down-style vest. “It’s a chance to avenge my brother’s death. A chance I never had before.”
He shrugged off the fear that goes with fighting Gaddafi’s superior forces, and said loudly that he had always been brave, but that he now has the chance to win. And yet, he sheepishly admitted during a pause in the fighting, he does get scared sometimes.
But in battle, he knows why he is there and he can’t leave the hundreds of others fighting alongside him. From different ages, classes, backgrounds and religious practices, they are united — for now — in one goal.
“We just want freedom, a safe country and basic rights,” he said. “Because now we have none of those.”