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Pro-Gadhafi Libyans strut in Tripoli, critics cool

By HADEEL AL-SHALCHI
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 5:54 AM

BANI WALID, Libya -- The family of a Libyan soldier killed in an allied airstrike quickly listed all those they blame in his death - al-Qaida militants, Al-Jazeera television and "the Crusader conspiracy to divide Libya."

It mimicked nearly word for word the rhetoric that Moammar Gadhafi's state television has been using to explain the revolt that has engulfed the country. In public, where Gadhafi is in charge, people are on message.

The regime has been keeping up a drumbeat of propaganda in the Tripoli-centered west of the country under its control. Even so, some still whisper their opposition to the Libyan leader.

State-run newscasts are filled with conspiracy theories, like Western designs on Libyan oil and Gulf-funded al-Qaida militants out to divide the country. Libyan broadcasts call the allied air strikes Crusades, and callers on talk shows quickly blame Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, the Arabic language satellite TV channels, for boosting what they call militant gangs in the East, where the rebels are in control.

In between talk shows and newscasts, looped video of demonstrators at Gadhafi's residential compound at Bab Al-Aziziya are shown under a title reading, "Bab Al-Aziziya Now." Excerpts of Gadhafi's speeches calling rebels vermin and rats, promising to disinfect Libya street by street, alleyway by alleyway, act as bridges between revolutionary songs on Libyan state radio.

The leader's speeches have even become made into catchy songs that blare from supporters' cars and are even used as mobile phone ring tones.

With only Libyan state television and radio available in the country, the uncontested messages seem to be sinking in.

Fathi Abu Bakr, a soldier in Gadhafi's army, died in the conflict. In the small town of Bani Walid, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of the capital, his family staged a tiny pro-Gadhafi rally for visiting journalists on Wednesday in the small front yard of their simple home.

Abu Bakr's family said the soldier was killed in a French air strike on Saturday in Benghazi, leaving behind a wife and two children, who moved back to her family's hometown.

"I am very happy he was martyred fighting the people who are trying to divide our country," said his aunt, Nooreya Mouftah. "They are all militants from Afghanistan, Egypt and Tunisia."

When pressed on how she knew the rebels were not Libyans, Mouftah looked puzzled. It's just a known fact, she told reporters, clutching a picture of a smiling Gadhafi in military uniform.

Last week her family was given a brand new AK-47 assault rifle by the government to protect themselves from rebels. Mouftah grabbed the gun and fired it in the air, posing for the journalists' cameras.

"The West wants to conspire against us because we have happiness, wealth and oil, and they want to take it from us" she said.

Back in Tripoli, the Gadhafi protesters are loud and boisterous.

They are quick to rally for the benefit of foreign journalists, chanting the same line - "God, Moammar, and Libya: That's enough."

Carrying AK-47s and large, glossy photos of a Gadhafi in various stages of his life and fashion, they extol "Brother Leader's" messages of fighting al-Qaida, repeating his claim that Western allies are "envious" of Libya's wealth.

The capital's main Green Square is filled daily with a group of supporters dancing to blaring pro-Gadhafi music and waving green flags. They chant "Down Down BBC, Down Down Al-Jazeera" and shout at journalists to "tell the truth."

But the crowd has been thinning in recent days.

In Tripoli's quiet alleyways, and in neighborhoods like Fashloum and Tajoura that saw clashes with Libyan security forces during protests a month ago, there are hints of something under the surface that still seems afraid to come out.

In the old city, almost all shops are closed, their green shutters tightly locked, people afraid for their wares in this time of crisis.

A jewelry shop owner was surprisingly candid with journalists, considering Gadhafi's harsh attitude toward dissent.

"Gadhafi has put us in a tough position," he said, refusing to give his name for fear of retribution. "He shouldn't have ordered his men to fire into peaceful protesters."

Asked about the government's claim that the rebels were a group of al-Qaida gangs and thugs, he laughed.

"How is it that all of Libya - Zawiya, Zintan, Misrata, Benghazi - all are al-Qaida?" he said. "Gadhafi is the problem."

The shop keeper quickly fell silent when the journalists' government minder entered the store.

In another part of town, a taxi driver who would give only his first name, Ziyad, said he joined the protests in the troubled neighborhood of Souq Jumoa almost a month ago.

"I am one of those youth who has become suffocated with life in Libya," he said. "I want opportunities like other youth in the world, but Gadhafi just makes us suffer."

Ziyad said he always wanted to learn English, but wasn't able to because the education system in Libya was poor. He said he quickly went home when Libyan security started shooting at protesters in Tripoli.

"I'm not sure if people will take to the streets again, because they don't want to die," he said. "But it is there - something is definitely bubbling."

© 2011 The Associated Press