Two fighters, shoulder to shoulder, show the diversity of the Libyan rebel forces

Haitham al-Ghaybee said he had never fired a gun before he joined the rebels in February.
Haitham al-Ghaybee said he had never fired a gun before he joined the rebels in February. (Leila Fadel)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Leila Fadel
Monday, March 14, 2011

IN 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 Sultan took 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.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company