Rebels were dealt military setbacks in Zawiyah and Ras Lanuf on Tuesday, part of a strengthening government counteroffensive.
Meanwhile, the opposition council’s leaders contradicted one another publicly. The opposition’s calls for foreign aid have amplified divisions over intervention. And provisional leaders warn that a humanitarian crisis may loom as people’s needs overwhelm fledgling local governments.
“I am Libya,” Colonel Qaddafi boasted after the uprising erupted. It was standard fare for one of the world’s most outrageous leaders — megalomania so pronounced that it sounded like parody. It underlined, though, the greatest and perhaps fatal obstacle facing the rebels here — forging a substitute to Colonel Qaddafi in a state that he embodied.
“We’ve found ourselves in a vacuum,” Mustafa Gheriani, an acting spokesman for the provisional leadership, said Tuesday in Benghazi, the rebel capital. “Instead of worrying about establishing a transitional government, all we worry about are the needs — security, what people require, where the uprising is going. Things are moving too fast.”
“This is all that’s left,” he said, lifting his cellphone, “and we can only receive calls.”
The question of the opposition’s capabilities is likely to prove decisive to the fate of the rebellion, which appears outmatched by government forces and troubled by tribal divisions that the government, reverting to form, has sought to exploit. Rebel forces are fired more by enthusiasm than experience. The political leadership has virtually begged the international community to recognize it, but it has yet to marshal opposition forces abroad or impose its authority in regions it nominally controls.
Organizers acknowledge the chaos but contend that there is no one else to talk to.
“We require support, whether it’s military or otherwise, we require help,” Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, the deputy leader of the provisional leadership, told a news conference in Benghazi. “The international community has to assume its duty at this point.”
While the mood remains ebullient in parts of eastern Libya, largely because few believe that Colonel Qaddafi can reconquer a region that long seethed under his rule, it is more sullen in Benghazi, a Mediterranean port and Libya’s second largest city.
At the courthouse that has served as a government headquarters, bedlam reigned Tuesday, as gusts of wind slammed doors shut and shattered a window. Nationalist music blared over hurried conversations that unfolded beneath cartoons lampooning Colonel Qaddafi.
Security has begun to deteriorate, with gunfire echoing in the distance, some robberies and assailants’ throwing a grenade at a hotel housing foreign journalists.
At the front, three and a half hours away, rebels sought to recover from a government offensive that forced them from Bin Jawwad and sent them reeling toward Ras Lanuf, a strategic refinery town. The government also appeared to deal setbacks to the rebels in Zawiyah, a rebel-held town near Tripoli, and Misratah, a strategic coastal city.
With momentum seeming to shift, the rebels face the prospect of being outgunned and outnumbered in what increasingly looks like a mismatched civil war.
“They don’t understand,” said Sami Tujan, an officer trying, unsuccessfully, to command rebels near a checkpoint. “They’re a big target.”
The rebels won their initial battles with an assortment of aging but effective weapons, and a seemingly plentiful supply of ammunition, including some from North Korea and Russia. On the beds of Toyota pickup trucks, many of the soldiers mounted an old Soviet heavy machine gun, which they referred to by the 14.5-millimeter rounds it fires. The guns are bundled together and used as antiaircraft weapons, and may have been responsible for downing a government warplane earlier this week near Ras Lanuf. Men holding rocket-propelled grenade launchers complete the patchwork rebel air-defense system.