Qaddafi’s Hold In Doubt As Rebels Advance

Residents of Tripoli, the capital, who for months had hesitated to talk openly over the phone, said in calls Friday night that they believed Colonel Qaddafi’s flight or ouster could be imminent. Three people said the feeling of fear was ebbing in the streets.
“It is much quieter today than yesterday and the day before,” said one resident, still not willing to reveal his name. “The situation is getting really tough now.”

With unexpected swiftness, the ill-trained and ill-equipped rebels from the western mountains this week overtook much of the strategic coastal town of Zawiyah, with its enormous oil refinery, just 30 miles west of Tripoli. By Friday they had also taken Gharyan, an important outpost along the trade route to the south. Qaddafi troops had concentrated in both towns, and their retreat in the face of the amateurish rebels raised new doubts about the loyalist forces’ will and cohesion.

As a result of those victories, most of the main roads that had supplied Tripoli have been closed. The city’s residents, accustomed to soaring food prices, weeklong waits for gas and long electrical blackouts, say they are now coping with a crime wave and uncollected garbage.

Many residents, fearing a bloody fight, are trying to flee. Rebels said that among them was Abdel Salam Jalloud, a leading figure in the 1969 revolution that brought Colonel Qaddafi to power. If confirmed, his would be the second high-profile defection in five days.

Residents and officials of the Qaddafi government said the NATO assault on Tripoli reached a new peak this week as bombs rained down on Colonel Qaddafi’s compound and the palatial home of his intelligence chief and brother-in-law, Abdullah Senussi.

Colonel Qaddafi has not made a televised appearance in three months, though on Monday he released a low-quality audio recording exhorting Libyans to fight, saying, and “The blood of the martyrs is fuel for the battlefield.”

Yet some American officials cautioned on Friday that the intelligence about what was happening in Tripoli remained murky. “Clearly, the regime is feeling the pressure, and the opposition is gaining ground each day,” said one American official familiar with the intelligence about Libya. But, he said, “How or when that translates into a tipping point or what the endgame might look like is hard to determine.

“At this stage,” he added, “Qaddafi might not know what he’s going to do from one day to the next.”

This is by no means the first time the rebels have seemed to have Colonel Qaddafi on the ropes. At the beginning of the uprising, Tripoli and most other cities in the country rose up against Colonel Qaddafi, before his militia’s reasserted control in the west and NATO stepped in to defend the rebel east.

There was fierce fighting on Friday in Zawiyah and in Zlitan, a coastal city east of Tripoli, an indication that at least some elements of the well-equipped Qaddafi forces remained determined to carry on the fight. Driven out by a NATO attack overnight, the loyalists returned to Zawiyah with renewed force, lobbing mortar rounds and rockets and retaking buildings around central Martyrs Square.

By the end of the day, however, rebel fighters were pouring in from other cities to counter the Qaddafi forces, and a reporter for Al Jazeera in Zlitan said the rebels had prevailed there. And early on Saturday the rebels claimed to have finally captured the eastern oil city of Brega, which has repeatedly changed hands during the conflict, The Associated Press reported.

As the fighting draws closer to Tripoli, residents are feeling the pressure. For the first time, they say, they cannot easily leave the city. Hundreds have clogged narrow back roads as they try to flee to the relative safety of the rebel-held mountains to the south.

That the mountains would beckon as a refuge is a measure of their fear, since conditions there are often hardly comfortable. Electricity and many supplies are still scarce, and some towns were deserted when Qaddafi forces shelled them earlier.

Officials of the Qaddafi government continued to insist that he would fight to the end. A senior Foreign Ministry official, in a conversation in which he was granted anonymity to speak about internal deliberations, said weeks ago that Qaddafi supporters would not give up even if they ran out of trucks and fuel. “We will ride camels,” he said.

While Qaddafi loyalists insisted that the capital remained stable, some acknowledged feeling “bitter.” NYT/