In Libya, increasingly divergent views of Gaddafi

After trying to control the protests in Libya through threats of violence, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi has lost control of the armed forces. (Feb. 23)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 12:42 AM

TOBRUK, LIBYA - On Libya's northeastern border, there are no visa procedures and no passport-control officers. There's just a gaggle of armed young men - defected soldiers and police officers - waving people through.

"Welcome to the new Libya," reads a graffiti tag at the crossing.

The young men eagerly displayed cellphone videos that they said depicted government mercenaries shooting down women, children and men. They told of rapes, looting and killings over the past week, as demonstrators have risen up in open revolt and the government of Moammar Gaddafi has cracked down hard.

"Our leader is a tyrant, and he'll kill us all in cold blood," said Hassan el-Modeer, a British-educated engineer. "The world needs to intervene as soon as possible."

Opposition supporters described this area to visitors as the "liberated eastern region of Libya," and anti-government sentiment runs high here.

But it is also clear that deep divisions remain. Even in this coastal town, more than 900 miles from Libya's capital and in an area that has slipped well beyond the government's control, some still support Gaddafi, who has ruled this country for 41 years.

On the unlit road leading from the Egyptian border, two young men weaved their vehicle through the lawless passage. Salam Mheishi, 17, balanced his rifle in his lap. Trucks sped past filled with men chanting: "God. Moammar. Libya. That's it."

"The colonel just spoke," one of the men in the car said, referring to Gaddafi, who had just given a televised speech. Celebratory gunfire echoed through the night air. "They love him. We love him."

A teacher walked up to the car and yelled inside.

"The president, Hillary Clinton, the United Nations and human rights groups must intervene," he said. "The people are being killed in the streets of Tripoli. He's a psycho, and he will create a catastrophe."

Mheishi listened. The background picture on his phone is an image of Gaddafi. Later he defended his leader and blamed "thugs" for turning peaceful protests to violence. Along the road he pointed with pride to a villa he said was owned by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Gaddafi's son.

"We have money here, and people are happy. When thugs were released from prisons, they seized tanks and weapons and stole from the shops," Mheishi said. "People want peace and stability. They want the president."

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