At one rebel training base, a diversity of motivation
BENGHAZI, Libya — The hundreds of men who come daily to this town’s seized army base for lessons in shooting rifles, loading rocket launchers, and firing artillery shells agree on at least two things: Libyan ruler Moammar Khadafy must go, and arms are the only way to get him out.
Beyond that, their visions of Libya should Khadafy’s 42-year reign end differ vastly. Some want democracy. Others want a share of Libya’s oil wealth. Still others, albeit a minority, see Libya’s liberation as the first step toward establishing a regional Islamic state. That is bound to scare the international coalition bombing Khadafy’s forces.
The United States has already reached out to the opposition’s political leadership. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with members of the Interim National Council on Tuesday in London.
The former US ambassador to Tripoli, Chris Stevens, is scheduled to visit Benghazi soon, and President Obama has not ruled out the possibility of arming rebel forces.
The interim council, largely stocked with foreign-educated, Westernized Libyans, insists it seeks a liberal democracy based on a constitution and with regular elections.
But interviews with more than a dozen men receiving weapons training at the military base provide a window into the diverse motivations pulling rebel ground troops into battle.
A few hundred show up daily at the base, which rebels seized at the start of the uprising in mid-February and promptly renamed “The Martyrs’ Brigade.’’ Training is run by a group of retired army officers, most in their 50s, who seek to provide basic weapons know-how to bakers, bureaucrats, university students, and taxi drivers.
On a recent day, a toothless soldier showed one group how to aim a Kalashnikov, while another helped a father and son assemble the barrel of an antiaircraft gun.
All spoke of reasons to hate Khadafy’s regime.
Ashraf Mohammed, a government bureaucrat, said he had seen too many people abused by the government. His brother was detained for seven months for being seen with the wrong people, he said. A neighbor spent seven years in prison, he said, and a colleague did 17 before being released with no explanation.
“All the accusations were political,’’ said Mohammed, 31. “Any accusation that you are against the regime, and it’s over.’’
Next he explained which buttons to push to fire a rocket launcher in what he considers a fight for freedom.
“The goal is democracy, a constitution, and transfer of power,’’ he said. “Not just one ruling family.’’
University student Abdel-Salam Rigayi, 23, took advantage of a vacation — imposed by the fighting — to pursue a different dream.
“We want a society based on the Koran,’’ he said, speaking in the formal Arabic tones of a mosque preacher.
“Freedom of religion— we don’t want it,’’ he said. “We want the freedom to practice our religion, but we don’t want freedom for Jews and Christians and to have naked women and alcohol.’’
His friend, Mahdi Abu Bakir, 35, wore a long white robe and a bushy beard.
“We want to get rid of that evil thief,’’ he said, referring to Khadafy, “then unite the Arabs under the motto, ‘There is no God but Allah,’ ’’ the Muslim declaration of faith.
The camp reflects the disorganization among rebel forces. Anyone who enters gets training without any physical, medical, or ideological screening. No one checks their identities, and few names are recorded.
NATO’s top commander, US Navy Admiral James Stavridis, told Congress Tuesday that officials had seen “flickers’’ of possible Al Qaeda and Hezbollah involvement with rebel forces. But he said there was no evidence of significant numbers within the opposition leadership.
Spokesman Mustafa Gheriani of the opposition council in Benghazi said that any extremists among the fighters are exceptions, and that ensuring democracy is the only way to combat them.
“Once you have a democracy and a constitution, there is nothing for the West to fear,’’ he said. “Democracy generally puts down all of these extremist elements. Our best bet is a democracy.’’