In Libya, increasingly divergent views of Gaddafi

By Leila Fadel
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."

On the road, he waved hello to young men manning checkpoints, armed with guns and sticks. They dressed in pieces of police and army uniforms given to them by defectors. Much of the light weaponry was apparently provided by the army.

Across the eastern part of Libya, military and police defectors stood with the opposition. Many told of turning against the government after a sister, a neighbor or a relative was killed in what they described as massacres.

Attiya el Sabr, 32, a border guard, said he defected Thursday after his brother-in-law was shot in Tobruk.

"Libya is in a security vacuum, and it's uncontrolled now," he said. "The civilian people protect the area."

Even top military officers have defected. On Sunday, Maj. Gen. Suleiman Mahmoud, the commander of the Tobruk Garrison, took off his shoes and entered a mosque, he said. Inside he hailed the martyrs of the revolution and told the people he was with them.

Hundreds gathered around him and wept. Mahmoud said that he had participated in Gaddafi's 1969 revolution but that his family had persuaded him in recent days to turn against the government. His daughter, who holds a doctorate, sobbed into the phone, telling him of the hundreds who had been killed in their home town of Benghazi. Many were teenage boys, and some were the neighbors' children.

"I decided to withdraw from the revolutionary army and join the people," Mahmoud said, still in his uniform Tuesday night.

"I didn't expect a revolutionary challenge to 'the African King of Kings,' " he said, a reference to Gaddafi's preferred title for himself. "The revolution is now armed and demolishing old buildings and reconstructing a world of freedom, of prime values, honesty, peace and love."

He said the United States and other foreign powers should not "apply double standards in dealing with Libya because of oil and economy." He said he knows that his choice to defect is dangerous and that the consequences could be severe if the revolution fails. "Maybe the next time you come to Tobruk, you'll find me in a grave," he said.

Some opposition figures are still too afraid to give their names to reporters. But in a hotel lobby, Modeer, the engineer, said he was willing to speak out against what he described as atrocities by Gaddafi's crumbling government.

"In Tripoli, they shot people in cold blood," he said, tears streaming down his face. "We have no other choice. We die or we win."

Modeer pulled out a small pistol from his pocket.

"This is all I have. Six bullets," he said.

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