Updated | March 31 Libyan opposition fighters retreated once again Wednesday from clashes with government forces in Sirte, Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown and a loyalist stronghold. It’s the second time in Libya’s uprising that the rebels have pushed westward, only to be turned back by Gadhafi’s regime.
The developments have international officials debating their next steps in the military campaign against Gadhafi’s forces. President Obama and others have called repeatedly for the autocrat’s ouster, but have also ruled out the possibility of expanding the mission to include regime change. “We went down that road in Iraq,” Obama said in a national address this week.
Military leaders say they are conducting “due diligence” on rebel leaders to determine how they might be able to help the opposition without putting troops on the ground. They maintain, though, that they aren’t communicating with the rebels, out of fear of expanding the military campaign beyond the “civilian protection” mission sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council.
Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a Pentagon briefing this week that the military was still trying to fill in certain “knowledge gaps” with regard to who the rebels are and what, if any, political affiliations they might have. “We would like a much better understanding of the opposition,” Gortney said. “We don’t have it.”
Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander, seemed to confirm some of Washington’s worst fears Tuesday when he said in testimony before Congress that U.S. intelligence suggested there may be “flickers” of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups among the ranks of the opposition:
We’re examining very closely the content, composition, the personalities, who are the leaders in these opposition forces. The intelligence that I’m receiving at this point makes me feel that the leadership that I’m seeing are responsible men and women who are struggling against Colonel Gadhafi. We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al-Qaeda, Hezbollah — we’ve seen different things. But at this point, I don’t have detail sufficient to say that there’s a significant al-Qaeda presence or any other terrorist presence in and among these folks.
The question of whether there are extremist elements among the opposition ranks has gained new urgency as the rebels ask for weapons from Western military powers. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with rebel leaders at a conference in London Tuesday and said the international community was open to providing arms to opposition forces. France, which has already formally recognized the rebels, has pushed aggressively for such a move.
The rebels are a diverse group, and so far there is little evidence to suggest that a significant portion of them are extremists, a charge they have adamantly denied. The bulk of the opposition fighters are the “shabab,” young protesters who sparked the uprising in early February (“shabab” is the preferred term, for example, of the Libyan Youth Movement). They range from the unemployed to aspiring doctors and engineers, such as Mohannad Bensadik, the Libyan-American medical student who died while fighting on the front lines earlier this month.
It’s somewhat less clear who the leaders are, as there have been a number of ad hoc councils and committees formed in liberated cities such as Benghazi. The Interim Transitional National Council, which is perhaps the most credible, is led by Mahmoud Jibril and Mustafa Abdul Jalil, both former ministers in Gadhafi’s government. Jibril, a Western-educated strategic planner, has been designated the opposition’s “interim prime minister.” He represented the rebels at the London conference Tuesday, where he met with Clinton and other international officials.
Jalil has been praised by human rights activists for reforming Libya’s criminal code. In a political flareup last year, he attempted to resign over the treatment of political prisoners in Libya — particularly in Benghazi — though he ultimately remained in the government. In a 2010 cable obtained by WikiLeaks, American diplomats described him as a “fair-minded technocrat.” And while both he and Jibril seem to be respected by most of the current opposition members, who credit them with defecting from the regime early in the uprising, they are viewed with suspicion by others.
The remaining members of the council are lawyers, businessmen and other Western-educated professionals from the city of Benghazi, where the opposition is based. To ease concerns among U.S. and international officials, they released a statement Thursday rejecting any affiliation with extremist groups and pledging to combat terrorism:
The Transitional National Council affirms the Islamic identity of the Libyan People, its commitment to the moderate Islamic values, its full rejection to the extremist ideas and its commitment to combating them in all circumstances, and refuses the allegations aiming to associate al-Qaeda with the revolutionists in Libya.
It emphasizes that the danger of terrorism threatens all nations and it should not be associated with any religion, culture or ethnicity; and it affirms its strong condemnation and its commitment to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes, as it constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security.
In an interview, Aladdin Mgariaf, a Libyan expatriate who is close to the rebels and who has been running aid convoys into Benghazi and other eastern cities from the Tunisian border, responded to the concerns about extremism among the rebels. “They’re not strangers, they did not come from just nowhere. They’re known to outsiders, to the West,” said Mgariaf, who runs the Libyan aid organization Tawasil. “They’re not in any way fanatical or related to any Islamic parties or anything.”
He acknowledged that some of the rebel leaders had been “part of Gadhafi’s regime,” and that others had fought in Iraq and been detained at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But mostly, he said, they were “open to the West” and were heartened by the international response to Libya’s uprising. “We’ve never felt happier having the West or the NATO to come and help us like now, because it was needed,” he said.
Mgariaf warned, however, that Islamic extremists might sense an opportunity in the relative lack of cohesion among the opposition. If the West does not begin arming the rebels soon, he said, al-Qaeda or some other extremist group might do so, in order to insinuate itself into the anti-Gadhafi movement. “The longer this drags on, the more chances, opportunity you give to the fanatic or other outside groups that everybody is scared of,” Mgariaf said. “They have the money, they have the arms, and they can start whatever they want.”
He added: “That’s why we are asking the West to arm the government — the interim government — now so they can finish the job quickly and we live in peace. Otherwise, we don’t know where this is going to lead.”