AJDABIYA, Libya — Something new has appeared at the Libyan front: a semblance of order among rebel forces.
Rebels without training — sometimes even without weapons — have rushed in and out of fighting in a free-for-all for weeks, repeatedly getting trounced by Moammar Gadhafi's more heavily armed forces. But on Friday only former military officers and the lightly trained volunteers serving under them are allowed on the front lines. Some are recent arrivals, hoping to rally against forces loyal to the Libyan leader who have pushed rebels back about 100 miles this week.
The better organized fighters, unlike some of their predecessors, can tell the difference between incoming and outgoing fire. They know how to avoid sticking to the roads, a weakness in the untrained forces that Gadhafi's troops have exploited. And they know how to take orders.
"The problem with the young untrained guys is they'll weaken us at the front, so we're trying to use them as a backup force," said Mohammed Majah, 33, a former sergeant.
"They don't even know how to use weapons. They have great enthusiasm, but that's not enough now," he said.
Majah said the only people at the front now are former soldiers, "experienced guys who have been in reserves, and about 20 percent are young revolutionaries who have been in training and are in organized units."
The greater organization was a sign that military forces that split from the regime to join the rebellion were finally taking a greater role in the fight after weeks trying to organize. Fighters cheered Friday as one of their top commanders — Col. Khalifa Hafter, a former senior figure in Gadhafi's military — drove by in a convoy toward the front.
It was too early to say if the improvements will tip the fight in the rebels' favor. They have been struggling to exploit the opportunity opened by international airstrikes hammering Gadhafi's forces since March 19.
In a sign the strikes may be eroding Gadhafi's resilience, his government is trying to hold talks with the U.S., Britain and France in hopes of ending the air campaign, said Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, a former Libyan prime minister who has served as a Gadhafi envoy during the crisis. "We are trying to find a mutual solution," he told Britain's Channel 4 News on Friday.
British officials met with Mohammed Ismail, a Libyan government aide who happened to be in London visiting relatives, and told him Gadhafi must quit, two people familiar with the issue said Friday. The two demanded anonymity to discuss details.
The opposition said Friday in Benghazi, its de facto capital, that it will agree to a cease-fire if Gadhafi pulls his military forces out of cities and allows peaceful protests against his regime.
The rebel condition is that "the Gadhafi brigades and forces withdraw from inside and outside Libyan cities to give freedom to the Libyan people to choose," said Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the opposition's interim governing council. "The world will see that they will choose freedom."
He spoke at a press conference with U.N. envoy Abdelilah Al-Khatib. Al-Khatib met Libyan officials in Tripoli on Thursday before holding talks with rebels in hopes of reaching a political solution.
The U.N. resolution that authorized international airstrikes against Libya called for Gadhafi and the rebels to end hostilities. Gadhafi announced a cease-fire immediately but has shown no sign of heeding it.
His forces continue to attack rebels in the east, which is largely controlled by the opposition, and have besieged the only major rebel-held city in the west, Misrata.
Misrata has been shelled by tanks and artillery for days, said a doctor in a city hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals. Many people have been killed, including eight since Thursday, he said. He said Gadhafi brigades control the port and a main street, but rebels control the heart of the city.
At the main front, which has moved back and forth in a fringe between the rebel-held east and Gadhafi-ruled west, the rebels' losses this week underlined the inferiority of their equipment, training and organization, compared to the regime's.
There were signs of at least some rebel improvement in all three areas Friday.
The rebels had mortars, weapons they previously seemed to lack, and on Thursday night they drove in a convoy with at least eight rocket launchers — more artillery than usual. The rebels also appeared to have more communication equipment such as radios and satellite phones. A newly installed diesel generator, allowing pumps at a gas station east of the main fighting, was another improvement.
They also appeared to get some international air support. Rebels east of Ajdabiya chanted "Allah akbar," or "God is great," as two planes flew overhead, and later eight to 10 heavy blasts — more powerful than regular shelling — were heard in the west, where Gadhafi's forces were.
Rebels had pleaded in vain for international airstrikes much of the week. U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said Thursday that most combat missions had been grounded by bad weather.
It was unclear where the front line was on Friday. A day earlier, the opposition moved into Brega, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Ajdabiya, but were again pushed out by Gadhafi's forces.
Ahmed al-Shiri, a 47-year-old former high-ranking officer from Benghazi, said Gadhafi forces were in Bishr, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Brega.
NATO said it conducted a total of 178 flights, including 74 "strike sorties," on Thursday, when it formally took control of what had been a U.S.-led military campaign against Gadhafi. The Obama administration, already fighting wars in two Muslim nations, had been eager to give up that responsibility.
The U.S. Defense Department announced it will end command missions in Libya on Saturday, leaving the work for other NATO members. The decision drew incredulous reactions from some in Congress.
The better organized rebel force took a long time to deploy mainly because it was being drawn up from scratch.
"We were setting up and training and establishing units all over Libya," said Hamid Muftah, 41, a former member of air force now with the rebels. The volunteers got about 25 days of training and have been organized into six- or seven-member groups each led by a defector from the regular military.
"They're still not that good, but they'll get experience," Muftah said.
"We can't just do what we want now," said Nasser Zwei, a 40-year-old oil engineer behind the wheel of an oil-company pickup truck, now equipped with an anti-aircraft gun. "We follow directions. It will make a difference."
Now untrained fighters are turned away at checkpoints. They stay to the rear to hold the line temporarily in case Gadhafi's forces attempt to flank the trained rebels, said Ali Bin-Amr, a 26-year-old fighter.
Al-Shiri, the former high ranking officer, said the improvements were set up over the past weeks. He blamed "lack of organization" for the rebels' failure to reach Sirte, the Gadhafi stronghold they were marching on last week when they were turned back by an overwhelming force of artillery and rocket fire.
Now "we get orders from the military council in Benghazi. They're in control. The army is in control," he said. The undisciplined fighters "are not leading the way anymore."
The international effort to stop Gadhafi from attacking his opponents is deeply divided on whether to arm the rebels, but they may soon get their own money to buy weapons. The opposition's National Transitional Council has reached agreement with Qatar on a plan to sell rebel-held oil to buy weapons and other supplies, according to Ali Tarhouni, who handles finances for the council.Comment on this story
Gadhafi's greatest losses this week were not military but political. His foreign minister and another member of his inner circle abandoned him Wednesday and Thursday, setting off speculation about other officials who may be next. The defections could sway people who have stuck with Gadhafi despite the uprising that began Feb. 15 and the international airstrikes aimed at keeping the autocrat from attacking his own people.
Libyan state TV aired a phone interview with intelligence chief Bouzeid Dorda to knock down rumors that he also left Gadhafi.
"I am in Libya and will remain here steadfast in the same camp of the revolution despite everything," Dorda said.
Hubbard reported from Benghazi. Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Tripoli, Maggie Michael in Cairo and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.