Pier Paolo Cito, Associated Press
TRIPOLI, Libya — The biggest danger to Moammar Gadhafi is not the rebel forces struggling to march on his capital. It's more likely to be the crumbling of the remaining, fragile support for his regime.
That is what makes the defection of Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa a heavy blow. He was part of a small circle of key insiders and family who have the most to lose if Gadhafi loses power. As those figures peel away, it makes the majority of his supporters, who have much looser ties, less certain that Gadhafi is capable of staying in power.
The Libyan leader relies most on his immediate family and his tribe, the Gadhadhfa. But his tribe is a relatively small one among the estimated 140 tribes that predominate life in the North African nation of about 6 million. So he vitally needs the support of others, whose allegiance he has bought over the years by handing their members top political and security posts.
Their loyalty is already fraying. International airstrikes hitting Gadhafi's forces — where these tribes make up much of the manpower — are designed in part to convince them that Gadhafi has to go.
Gadhafi's most important alliances have been with the Warfalla and Magarha tribes, thought to be among the biggest in the country, with some estimates of around 1 million members each. One of his right-hand men, military intelligence chief Abdullah Senoussi, is a Magarha (he's also Gadhafi's brother-in-law). Members of both tribes have filled the upper ranks of the security forces and government.
Warfalla and Magarha also largely fill out the militias led by Gadhafi's sons, Khamis, Muatassim and al-Saadi. The regime has relied on those forces to battle the rebels and besiege opposition-held cities because the Libyan leader feels assured of their loyalty. That means they have been main targets of the air campaign and are bearing the brunt of the punishment.
Some leaders in both tribes have announced their support for the anti-Gadhafi uprising since it erupted on Feb. 15, and numerous individual Warfalla and Magarha have joined the revolt, either as fighters or politicians. Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the opposition's eastern-based leadership council, is a Warfalla.
The rest in these tribes and others have remained with Gadhafi for the moment, whether out of fear of reprisals or because they hope to hold onto the perks and salaries the positions and military jobs provide them.
Recently, Warfalla figures within the regime — like infrastructure minister Maatouq Maatouq — have been sent to berate their fellow tribesmen to stay in line, said Faraj Najem, a Libyan historian and expert on tribes.
"They have made it clear to their tribe that anyone who speaks against the regime will be in trouble — that is, physically liquidated. So they have managed to suppress much Warfalla dissent," said Najem, who is based in London and is in touch with figures on the ground in Libya.
The allied tribes "can switch at any moment depending on the circumstances," Najem said. "There will be a moment when they will let Gadhafi down, either by turning against him or just stepping aside" and remaining neutral.
Since U.S. and European-led airstrikes on Libya began on March 19, Western officials have stepped up calls for Gadhafi loyalists to turn against him. "We call on all his supporters to drop him before it is too late," French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a joint statement Monday.
"Those who abandon Gadhafi in his crazy and murderous ways can join in the reconstruction of a new, democratic Libya," Sarkozy said.
The extent of sincere popular support for Gadhafi is hard to measure, given the overwhelming propaganda campaign his government has waged to show he remains beloved by the masses. Libyan state TV frequently shows "tribal gatherings" boasting of various tribes' backing for the man who has ruled for nearly 42 years.
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