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Monday, April 25, 2011

The Tribal Threat in Misrata

April 25 2011
last updates April 28

World attention has lately centered on the Misrata theater of the war, with its urban fighting and government shelling in a "medieval" siege. The humanitarian concern, however, masks a more strategic one. (see Why Misrata Matters) As soon as it became clear the United States was tired enough of the stalemate to commence drone warfare over the city (and bring the civilian protection so loved in Pakistan), the Libyan army finally made the decision to remove themselves from Misrata.

Some units were shot at on their way out, and thus left under rebel fire, but the ones captured swore they were leaving anyway. And it was on orders from above, not from low morale (not that it's high). The rebels and their supporters worldwide have nonetheless claimed that they single-handedly forced the retreat. The Associated Press noted:
A resident of Misrata says rebel fighters have driven Moammar Gadhafi's forces to the edge of the besieged city in western Libya [and that] rebel fighters on Sunday cleared the rest of Tripoli Street, a thoroughfare previously controlled by Gadhafi loyalists. He says opposition forces took control of the main hospital in the area.

Al Jazeera April 28
"Our freedom fighters have managed to defeat the soldiers of Gaddafi" by forcing them out of Misurata, Khalid Azwawi, head of the local transition committee, said late on Wednesday.

Orla Guerin, BBC, April 24:
"[T]he rebels had managed to cut off the Gaddafi troops, they had managed to break their supply lines. And this is why in the end the rebels were able to flush them out."

Reuters, April 23:
A wounded Libyan government soldier captured by rebel forces in Misrata said on Saturday the army had been ordered to retreat from the city. "We have been told to withdraw. We were told to withdraw yesterday," the soldier, Khaled Dorman, told Reuters.

Lying in the back of a pickup truck, he was among 12 wounded army soldiers brought to a hospital for treatment in Misrata. As he spoke, other uniformed soldiers moaned in pain, saying "My god, my god." Another serviceman, asked by a Reuters correspondent if the government had lost control over Misrata, said "Yes."

But this isn't a government surrender, says the government. They're intent on at least clearing out this rebel stronghold in the west. The idea now, reportedly, is to allow in the civilian tribes, who are itching to re-open Misrata's port for the rest of the region not trying to secede. They would presumably be armed by the government - one can hardly imagine a standard Libyan tribe having many rocket launchers or tanks. As Chinese news site Xinhuanet reported on April 23:
[Libyan government spokesman] Khaled Kaim said, "The situation in Misrata will be eased, will be dealt with by the tribes around Misrata, and the rest of Misrata's people, not by the Libyan army and you will see how they will be swift and quick and fast and the Libyan army will be out of the question, out of the situation in Misrata because Libyan people around Misrata, they cannot sustain it like this. The sea port has been seized by the rebels and the tactic of the Libyan army is to have a surgical solution but it doesn't work. With the air strikes, it doesn't work and we will leave it to the tribes around Misrata and Misrata's people to deal with the situation there in Misrata."

Associated Press report, April 24:
Libyan tribal leaders are trying to get rebels in the city of Misrata to lay down their arms within 48 hours, a government official said early Sunday, after a day of fierce clashes between opposition fighters and Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

If negotiations fail, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said tribal chiefs may send armed supporters into the city of 300,000 to fight the rebels. In the meantime, the Libyan military is halting operations in Misrata, Kaim said.

However, the Misrata area is not known to have very large or dominant tribes, and rebels in the city questioned how much support Gadhafi had among them. It is also unclear whether the rebels would be willing to negotiate, particularly after claiming to have forced government forces to retreat. Kaim said tribal chiefs are still trying to get in touch with the rebels.

There is still to my knowledge no confirmation from the tribes themselves. So far it's just what Kaim and other government sources say. Rebels are skeptical of the tribal will or ability to challenge their right to hold the city. After all, it is the rebels alone in Libya with the power to require NATO or CIA (drone) air strikes! Or any "legal" air support at all! It is they alone who are recognized as the legitimate government by France, Qatar, John McCain, and their old pals in Italy! If that doesn't scream legitimacy in Libyan society, well... it doesn't. And they might not be as popular in the west of the country as they've led us to believe.

Reports of heavy bombardment continued into the 24th despite the touted army pull-out. The BBC, in a video report, got word of this from a doctor at a local hospital, who cited 10 killed and 45 wounded. Their reporter Orla Guerin also provided some camouflage for the promised tribal moves, explaining fears that "the Army might re-invade in civilian clothes." That's what it will probably be, in reality or presentation, if the tribes do attack. The rebels feel this empty threat is "a game, this is a trick," Guerin explains, "and that he does intend to keep up the seige, and that he has no intention of freeing Misrata."

All such concerns aside, government forces are effectively gone from the city proper, and these attacks could just be parting shots or rearguard actions. Only time will tell if this retreat holds, or if the tribal approach will come to fruition. If it does, it will show that large, functioning sections of the Libyn polity is still with the government, a message the west is loathe to consider. And it would sorely test the rebels' tactical air support from NATO. Will they be willing to kill non-uniformed, civilian fighters as they go up against their allied non-uniformed civilian fighters? Kill the people of Libya to save the people of Libya?

It will also, likely, be cried foul over, as the regime using "human shields." That usually happens when NATO's rendered powerless. Or worse yet, rebels will insist they're army in diguise and NATO will call that good enough and destroy them anywyay with preadator-fired "Hellfire" missiles.

The Guardian, April 24:
Tribal leaders have not confirmed any intervention, and rebel leaders in Misrata are sceptical about the government's statements. But Kaim said early on Sunday that the tribes were "trying to get in contact with the rebels".
Ahmed Mohamed Said, a computer engineer turned rebel, said it was ruse to make the conflict look like civil war, rather than a government turning on its own people, and thus prevent Nato from assisting the rebels from the air. "Gaddafi wants it to look like brothers are fighting brothers," he said. "That will never happen."
[Khalid Kaim] added: "The leaders of the tribes decided to do something to bring normal life back. Their main demand is that foreign fighters leave the town or surrender themselves to the army." The regime maintains that rebels fighting in Misrata and the east of the country are being driven by al-Qaida and Hezbollah militants – a claim rejected by the opposition.

Kaim said the tribal leaders want to reopen access to the port, which has been under the control of rebel forces since the siege began. The port served all Libyans, he said, but was of particular interest to tribes south of Misrata.

"The leaders of the tribes are determined to find a solution to this problem within 48 hours," he added. "The other option is military intervention."

He claimed the six tribes in the region could muster a force of 60,000 men to "liberate" the city. Any assault by the tribal forces would be ruthless, he claimed. "The tribal leaders are pushing to intervene militarily," he said. "We have to do our utmost to stop this. If the tribes move into the city, it will be very bloody, and I hope to God we will avoid this."
Any further developments in this subject will be inserted below.
May 15: Well, obviously the 48-hour deadline has passed. Misrata has remained under seige, and it appears to from Government forces, who remained near the city and hold or held until recently (accounts differ) the airport and a military base. NATO and the rebels have reportedly worked well together tho whittle this back.

So far, the tribes haven't taken their own part in fighting, but they seem to be working that way still. On May 5, Tripoli hosted a large gathering of 2,000 tribal leaders, who by and large called for the rebels - especially in Misrata - to surrender. One source notes:
Mansour Khalaf, who heads Libya's largest tribe, the Warfalla, told reporters during the conference that although he denounces the uprising and supports Col. Gadhafi's leadership, he would not send armed followers to join the Libyan army's fight against the rebels, as some other tribes have vowed to do.

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