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For Libya's western rebels, high hopes but real struggles

QAWALISH, Libya — In a house on the outskirts of this deserted village on Libya's western front line, about a dozen rebel fighters sheltered from the blistering sun, occasionally scanning the horizon with binoculars. Across the dusty mountain plain below them were Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces, whom they'd forced from the village more than a month ago.

The rebels said they were preparing to advance to Al Sabha, a town about 10 miles away across the vast exposed plain. From there, they plan to press on toward the strategic city of Gharyan, which they say serves as a key transit point for pro-government fighters and weapons from southern Libya to Gadhafi's capital, Tripoli.

The rebel army in Libya's remote western mountains has grand plans, and in recent months it's gradually inched forward along a chain of mountaintop villages. But a glimpse at its ranks this week showed why it's unlikely to challenge Gadhafi's hold on Tripoli anytime soon: Its supply lines are stretched, it's struggling with cohesion and it seems that its advance may stall as the fasting month of Ramadan approaches in August.

Here in what's known as the Nafusa Mountains, there already are growing shortages of food and fuel, with the price of a tank of gas soaring from about $2.50 to $50. All supplies must be brought in by long, precarious journeys along the single highway that connects the mountains to the border with Tunisia, which comes under regular rocket bombardment from Gadhafi's troops.

The western rebels — long seen as better disciplined and more tenacious than the fighters in eastern Libya — also are showing signs of faltering organization. After finally capturing Qawalish on July 6, they allowed Gadhafi's forces to overrun it briefly on July 13 before reinforcements arrived and they recaptured the village later that day.

Rebel commanders said that some young fighters manning a checkpoint had fallen asleep at their posts, allowing the government troops to pass unchallenged.

Col. Jumaa Ibrahim, a senior coordinator at the western rebels' military headquarters in Zintan, said the fighters had failed to alert the control room, meaning that it was several hours before reinforcements were summoned.

"It's difficult when you are controlling civilian people," Ibrahim explained. "When I arrived in Zintan they are not disciplined, they are shooting in the air, driving fast. They are very good fighters, they are very brave, but they still need more training."

Last week, the United States said it formally recognized Libya's main opposition group as the country's legitimate government, giving a boost to the rebel forces scattered across the country. The advances in the west, in particular, had been a source of optimism for leaders in Western countries as support for NATO's military campaign — nearing its sixth month — began to falter.

For weeks, the western rebels made small but significant gains, coming within about 60 miles of Tripoli.

Elsewhere, the rebel army has been bogged down for months. Outside the besieged city of Misrata, rebels are stuck outside the town of Zlitan, which lies in the path of their western advance to Tripoli.

In the desert scrub of the eastern front line, rebel forces have spent months trying to recapture Brega, an important oil port. The rebels reportedly were within about three miles of the city earlier this week, but land mines apparently laid by Gadhafi's forces forced them to slow their advance.

On the western front line, the presence of civilians in Al Sabha and Gharyan jeopardizes the planned assault on those towns. Ibrahim said that advance had been postponed to give civilians the opportunity to depart.

Fighters at Qawalish suggested that Gaddafi could be using human shields to prevent the rebels' advance.

The rebels also are facing increased scrutiny about their conduct in the war. Human Rights Watch recently reported looting and arson by rebels in civilian-occupied villages in the western mountains.

In four towns, homes and shops were burned and three medical clinics looted, the group said. In another, it said, rebels beat people they accused of having supported government forces.

Residents of strategic Gharyan, who'd escaped the city early in the fighting, said that while many people there backed the revolution, some remained loyal to Gadhafi's regime.

"There is maybe 80 percent who are with the revolution," said a man named Adel, who said he'd been working from Tunisia to supply fighters in the mountains. He wouldn't give his full name because he feared government reprisals.

As Ramadan approaches around the first week of August and temperatures soar over 110 degrees, fighters here will begin to struggle. Despite their difficulties, however, their morale remains high.

Atia el Mansouri, a former elite air force pilot and squadron leader who defected and now advises the rebel military council in Zintan, said the rebels could afford to advance slowly. "We are not in a hurry," he said. "Gadhafi is in the corner now."

(Walker is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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