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Gadhafi's close-kit ties with tribes may be unraveling

By David D. Kirkpatrick

New York Times News Service

Published: Monday, March 14 2011 10:58 p.m. MDT

TRIPOLI, Libya — Akram al-Warfalli, a leader of this country's giant Warfalla tribe, said only a few words in his interview with Al-Jazeera.

"We tell the brother Gadhafi, well, he is no longer a brother," al-Warfalli said, "We tell him to leave the country."

It was one defection from a powerful tribe that has supported Moammar Gadhafi — one small ray of hope for the rebels being pummeled by his troops in the east. Some Libyans and scholars outside the country say the system of tribal alliances that has long been Gadhafi's most potent weapon is emerging as perhaps his greatest — and only remaining — vulnerability, as a long history of external wars, failed tribal coups and internal purges have chipped away at his support even among the tribes.

Gadhafi's reaction to the tribe's mutiny was swift, another Warfalla leader recalled Monday, dispatching fighting units to the Warfalla's traditional homeland, Bani Walid. There they made sure no younger tribe members left to join uprisings in the nearby cities of Zawiyah and Misuratah as well as the capital, this Warfalla leader said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution against himself and his family.

"The Warfalla, like their brethren the Zintan and Awlad Suleiman, are boiling," he wrote in an e-mail, referring to two neighboring tribes. "The only reason we have not seen them participate in combat is the lack of weapons, and the siege that is now implemented upon them. They are simply outgunned, and are vulnerable."

A Gadhafi government spokesman, Abdel Majid al-Dursi, disputed the Warfalla leader's account, saying the tribe's support for Gadhafi remained strong. From the moment he seized power in 1969, Gadhafi has surrounded himself with a bulwark of close allies drawn from his family, his own tribe, the Qaddafa, and two larger central and western Libyan tribes with close ties to his own, the Warfalla and the Margharha. All three tribes — the Qaddafa most of all — have dominated the ranks of Gadhafi militias and armed forces, jobs that carry significant power, prestige and money in Libyan society and culture, They remain his sturdiest base of support.

But as Gadhafi has maneuvered through four decades of treacherous tribal politics, he has made many enemies, and even his own tribe and its allies have increasingly turned against him. The tensions flared into the open as early as 1985, when his guards shot and killed his cousin Hassan Ishkal, a top military commander, at the gates of Gadhafi's compound here; Ishkal had questioned the wisdom of the Libyan leader's losing war with neighboring Chad.

Intra-tribal stresses reached their most visible peak in 1993 when military officers from the three favored tribes, the Qaddafa, Warfalla and Margharha, staged an abortive coup. Now, since the recent revolt began, another Qaddafa cousin in the colonel's inner circle, Ahmad Gaddaf al Dam, has reportedly fled to Cairo.

As the tide of battle has turned recently thanks to Gadhafi's well-equipped militia, some rebels say they are pinning their hopes on a tribal coup organized by those still close to him.

"We pray for that every day," said Mohammed, a rebel in the besieged city of Misuratah whose family name was withheld for their protection. "There is a prayer especially for that. We hope that they turn on him, and they will be heroes if they do."

He added, "Gadhafi has played the tribe game too much."

Even in contemporary Libya, where much of the population now lives in or near cities, many identify as strongly with their tribe as they do with their country, social scientists and many Libyans say. A Libyan who learns that a new acquaintance hails from a well-regarded tribe will often shake hands a second time in a extra measure of respect.

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