By PAUL SCHEMM and HAMZA HENDAWI
BENGHAZI, Libya — They have little ammunition, their equipment is old and outdated and their fighters are poorly trained. Even though they boast of tanks, army bases and airports in eastern Libya, rebels still face many challenges before they can make any real move on Moammar’s Gadhafi’s stronghold in Tripoli hundreds of miles to the west.
Analysts believe the standoff between forces loyal to Gadhafi and rebels backed by army troops who have defected would likely be settled on the streets. But they also said they could not rule out that a hurriedly assembled force from the east would move out to seize Tripoli.
“It will take people power to unseat Gadhafi,” said Peter Felstead, editor of Jane’s Defense Weekly.
Leaders of the eastern rebellion said they were trying to put together a force made up of army troops and volunteers with basic military training and that they already have more than 5,000 volunteers. The plan, they explained, was to march on Tripoli through the desert, skirting big loyalist towns along the way like Sirte, and to glean information from Tripoli on the easiest route into the city.
Already, signs are growing that the roughly 470-mile (750-kilometer) march to Tripoli to oust Gadhafi or an effort to consolidate defenses in the east in the face of a possible attack by forces loyal to the Libyan leader would receive the blessing or even the support of the West.
The European Union said Monday it was discussing the possibility of creating a no-fly zone over Libya and the Pentagon said it was repositioning some armed forces to near Libya in case they were needed, but it did not say what they might be needed for. The U.S. has a regular military presence in the Mediterranean and two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf area.
French planes were headed for the eastern city of Benghazi with doctors, nurses, medicine and medical equipment. “It will be the beginning of a massive operation of humanitarian support for the populations of liberated territories,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on RTL radio. “(France is studying) all the options to make Col. Gadhafi understand that he should go.”
Western support could be crucial if the rebel-held east decides to end the stalemate with Libya’s Gadhafi and send a force west to capture Tripoli and topple his 41-year-old regime.
“We asked all the military people to come back to work,” said Ali Idris, a leading member of the city of Bayda’s council in eastern Libya. “The problem is that Tripoli is heavily defended so we are trying to contact people there to figure out how to get into Tripoli.”
At one of two military bases at Shahhat near Bayda, a Libyan army officer said an effort as being made to gather all the available weapons in the base and on the streets to use to defend areas under rebel control.
“I do not know how many troops there are,” said Maj. Salem Abdel-Mula, explaining many had fled, but there had also been civilian volunteers. “Maybe some 800 of them have joined us.”
“Food, medicine, weapons — anything would help,” he said of possible Western aid. The unshaven officer was dressed in a blue jumpsuit and parka and didn’t carry any obvious marks of rank.
The army units visible in the area did not inspire confidence and the main Shahhat base was the site of the climactic battle between rebel and government forces just a week before.
The buildings were largely gutted and covered in graffiti. Spent shell casings littered the area, and burned and twisted heavy guns were everywhere.
A tank had been driven in front of the ruined gate to block it, while another parked outside the base was covered with graffiti. “Libya is free,” read one inscription.
“We have orders to move these tanks to other bases,” said Sgt. Maj. Salah Adam, who wore mismatched khakis as he gestured at the small, Russian-made tanks dating from the 1980s. He said the base has 36 tanks, of which 12 will be deployed around Bayda.
“We are not trying to go to war, but if the order comes, we will be ready to go to Tripoli,” he said.
But not everyone in the east is eager for a military showdown with Gadhafi’s forces.
Ahmed Jibreel, a Libyan diplomat involved in plans to set up an administration that would run the east, said he hoped Gadhafi would give up and leave rather than see more Libyan bloodshed in battle.
“We are hoping he will be convinced it is better for him to leave the country,” Jibreel said, denying that any moves had been made so far on Tripoli.
For now, he said the disparate units of the east’s cities were consolidating their manpower and integrating themselves into a unified command.
It is not clear how many of Libya’s estimated 45,000-strong army has defected to the rebel cause in the east, home to two of the country’s seven military regions and several sprawling army and air force bases with a large number of Soviet-era tanks, armored personnel carriers and MiG fighter-jets.
Of the country’s seven air bases, four are in the eastern region now under rebel control.
Military analysts said, however, that the fight for Tripoli or any other city still under Gadhafi’s sway will be more of an urban battle than a conventional one, with light arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars far more effective than tanks, field artillery or warplanes.
But putting together a fighting force to take on Gadhafi loyalists would involve a great deal of logistical know-how, from arranging fuel trucks, food supplies, ammunition and establishing a workable chain of command, said Jane’s Felstead.
Glimpses of the rebel Libyan army in the cities of Tobruk, Bayda and Benghazi, however, reveal an undisciplined group wearing only bits of uniforms with a tendency to ride around in pickup trucks and fire their weapons in the air.
There have been calls in the West for enforcing a no-fly zone over eastern Libya to protect it from aerial attacks by forces loyal to Gadhafi. There have also been offers of materiel assistance to the region’s military, such as providing it with arms and ammunition. But the analysts believe the army component of the rebel contingent, like the rest of the Libyan army, was not a force professional enough to fight effectively.
Gadhafi has over the years deliberately weakened the army, fearing a strong one would be tempted to overthrow his regime — the same way he came to power. Instead, he spent lavishly on training and arming loyal militias that stand to lose the most if his regime is overthrown, and he has used mercenaries from other African countries.
Theodore Karasik of Dubai’s Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis argued, however, that the eastern force will have a tactical advantage over pro-Gadhafi forces because of the expected nature of its makeup — motivated volunteers with basic or more military training and professional soldiers at the lead.
Hendawi reported from Cairo.