Risky divisions in Libya’s key tribal stronghold

By Maria Golovnina

NEAR BANI WALID, Libya (Reuters) – With fervor in his eyes, 17-year-old Abubakir Issa said he was ready to fight for Muammar Gaddafi with a rifle he was given last week as part of the Libyan leader’s drive to create a civilian armed force.

“They gave each family a weapon,” he said at his clan house on the outskirts of Bani Walid, an important tribal stronghold about 150 km (90 miles) southeast of the capital Tripoli.

“Muammar Gaddafi is arming us to defend the country against terrorists,” added Issa, wearing combat trousers, with a red and white scarf wrapped loosely around his head.

Gaddafi, fighting a rebellion against his four-decade rule, announced a plan on March 20 to arm “all masses” to help him defeat what he called “colonial crusader” aggression — a dangerous tactic for a nation already awash with weapons.

Teenagers like Issa may be all too keen to brandish new guns and declare allegiances, but in potentially restive regions like Bani Walid, where Gaddafi’s support already appears shaky, it may also tip a fragile tribal balance in favor of the revolt.

Bani Walid is home to the Warfalla, Libya’s biggest and most important tribe which originally announced its opposition to Gaddafi at the start of the country-wide rebellion last month.

Its revolt was quickly suppressed by Gaddafi forces and now the government says that Bani Walid — separated from Tripoli by a range of barren hills — is firmly under control.

But signs of strain were apparent even on a government-organized visit for journalists there on Wednesday which offered a rare glimpse into Libya’s rural life outside Gaddafi’s heavily fortified stronghold of Tripoli.

“Those crowds of pro-Gaddafi supporters do not represent even 5 percent of the city population,” said one man, Tareq, speaking quietly at a local cafe near a central square. “Things are not good here.”

Salem, a businessman, recalled that rebel sympathizers had sprayed city walls with graffiti reading “Death to Gaddafi” during earlier unrest.

The city center is now flooded with crowds chanting patriotic songs and waving green flags indicating loyalty to Gaddafi. “Down, down USA. Down, down Sarkozy,” they shouted.

Anti-government graffiti appeared to have been painted over on walls and fences in the city. A large portrait of Gaddafi in the square — usually a point of reverence in Gaddafi-held towns — appeared partially ripped down.

With weapons readily available and an unemployment rate of more than 30 percent, emotions are high on both sides.

Libya is now full of angry young men like Issa, who said his brother, Fathi, was killed fighting on the Gaddafi side for control of rebel-held areas in eastern Libya this week.

Outside his family house, many other teenagers — and even two headscarved women — shook their AK-47 rifles in defiance. Some shot in the air as others clapped and cheered.

Poverty is overwhelming. In some areas around Bani Walid, villages were full of crumbling houses and heaps of garbage littered the desert, a sad reality for a large oil-rich country.

With coalition forces mounting air strikes against Libya’s strategic sites, the government is nervous. Roads around Tripoli are dotted with army checkpoints, complete with anti-aircraft guns, tanks and sandbagged enclaves for soldiers.

At a government-organized meeting with locals at Issa’s house, tribal members, many wearing long white robes and holding Kalashnikovs, competed with each other to convince visiting reporters that support for Gaddafi was overwhelming.

“We are ready for any air strikes. We don’t want him to go,” said Mansour Khalaf, a doctor. “We support Gaddafi because he works hard, he supports people who work hard and he is against those who want to colonize Libya.”

(Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Risky divisions in Libya’s key tribal stronghold