Those unfamiliar with the incident last Friday morning that, it's said, killed several Muslim imams on a peace mission to the east, should see Details on the May 13 NATO Strike at Brega.
In NATO's acknowledged dawn raid on Brega, nine religious representatives were killed (mis-reported as both 11 and 16), with another 45-50 or more injured. There is still some confusion over whether the victims were proper imams or men from the government's bureau of Islamic affairs there to meet the imams (although the latter seems a better fit) - see above link, at the bottom of the article).
The city of Brega is only about 25 miles southwest of the contested city of Ajdabya, which is in turn about 50 miles south of the rebel capitol Benghazi. The Guardian's Michael Chulov reports on the mission of the clerics:
The group had reportedly travelled to Brega from across the war-torn country. They had appeared on state-run television on Thursday and, according to government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, planned to move to the nearby city of Ajdabiya on Friday and then to Benghazi.
But as it happened, they spent the hours between those events in a building which NATO was forced to bomb during their brief stay. As always, they insist it was a "command and control bunker," part of the government's C-and-C system, or C3 (adding non-command communications) or C3I (adding intelligence). Attacking these is said to prevent the flow of orders or materiel to any effort to attack the well-armed, NATO-backed "civilians" intent on overthrowing the government. This is very important, for "humanitarian" reasons of course.
Now, NATO acknowledges hitting a building in Brega. And the government's got quite a few dead and gravely injured victims shown, in a bombed building at Brega. Let's dispense with hypothetical possibilities and presume the two facts are directly connected. NATO bombs killed these religious leaders on their purported mission of peace.
When NATO destroyed a Gaddafi family home on the night of April 31, killing three babies and Gaddafi's 29-year old son while narrowly missing the leader, it was a C3 center and who knows why or if the Gaddafis were there. A barracks hit in Tripoli's Tajoura district a month earlier was within a residential neighborhood, and reportedly killed 40 civilians.
If we accept both NATO's versions of these and other attacks, and the civilian deaths reported, the government complexes hit frequently have war-control facilities right next to or inside of homes, hospitals, schools, and sewage treatment plants. They're hit anyways, damaging these civilian facilities over and over, with NATO always voicing regret for any civilian deaths that may have happened, and promising to "look into it" (it's the last we ever hear).
Considering this pattern, would Gaddafi find it a deterrent to run military operations from a building in Brega, and use the same place to house these pilgrims? He might possibly try, but again, it shouldn't be expected to work. NATO has only to fail to verify the claims, and they can be considered irrelevant.
If not a deterrent, perhaps he set things up this way as a trick - a human sacrifice to give NATO a black eye. This is just the kind of thing they're accused of frequently, and they are using the Brega strike for PR advantage against the "barbaric, inhumane NATO." But really, they have plenty of excellent gripes already that have had little effect, and they stood much more to gain from a successful peace mission. That would be quite a thing to throw away on more Gaddafi "human shield" brutality against his own people when any random religious leaders not engaged in something important could be slapped into some secret command bunker to similar effect.
Did NATO know anything about the clerics and the mission they were on? I suspect so, given their appearance on TV the previous day. Did it effect the bombing raid? I suspect so. Their strikes usually happen late at night when people are asleep, but this one was a bit later, and caught them just as they had woken up and gathered together for a pre-journey "religious ceremony." That might indicate an intent to kill as many of them as possible, which could be managed if someone were slipping them detailed enough information.
Another option is a NATO screw-up that hit the wrong building and only by chance killed these guys, just as they happened to be on their way to try and talk the rebels down. That seems like rather a steep coincidence, leaving the other options where one command structure or another (Libya's or NATO's) conspired to bring these pilgrims of peace together with the war's destruction.
The final possibility I'd like to float is that in some twisted Orwellian way, NATO's and the government's assessments are both true. Perhaps the Euro-Atlantic leadership had decided the planned meeting with the rebels would be an attack on them. And clearly the Imams making last minute preparations at the guest-house in Brega would be the command and control of that attack.
Perhaps they felt the clerics had kalashnikovs and suicide vests under their robes, but more likely it was a less literal attack which they feared. Given the intensely religious bent of the rebel masses, the credentialed clerical entourage ("including a leading cleric named Sheik Omar Ibrahim" - among the dead according to Mathaba) might have a chance of reaching a few. Considering the faded initial euphoria of February and possibly clearer thinking beneath the surface, some few rebels might wind up laying down their arms and setting an example for others yet. As an ideological challenge to the rightness and wisdom of NATO's favorites ruling all Libya, it might have been potent. Therefore, it could be said, the Imams themselves were plotting a type of attack on the "civilians" of Ajdabya and eventually Benghazi. That would be unacceptable to those who intend to have them rule all Libya.
The main goal, in this possibility, would be to fully stop the peace mission. But failing that, if the remaining Imams continued on, they might be even more discredited in rebel eyes by their ordeal. They were already perceived as a pro-Gaddafi delegation, by virtue at least of seeking an end to the war aimed at destroying the regime. But after the strike, the rebel leaders could say "you want to talk peace to us? You spent the night in a Gaddafi command center coordinating attacks on us! That's what NATO says, and we believe our patrons. Now go home and we'll see you again when we get to Tripoli."
But I've seen nothing about the mission continuing, at least on schedule. This NATO attack on civilians does seem to have been fatal to the victims' efforts at peace. How much clearer does it need to get that NATO has unstated interests that totally overshadow their public ones?