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Lehigh U. grad student returns to Libya to fight

By Beth Defalco

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 15 2011 6:15 p.m. MDT

Lehigh University students listen on a video link, on Friday, April 15, 2011, in Bethlehem, Pa., to former Lehigh student Issa Hakim, and other members in the Libyan Rebel Forces Army in Benghazi, Libya. Hakim and the university arranged for the students to learn and ask questions about the events going on in Libya from their classroom.

Rich Schultz, Associated Press

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Last semester, the Libyan government was paying to send Issa Hakim to Lehigh University to get a PhD in mechanical engineering.

This semester, the 35-year-old Hakim is back in Libya, patrolling the desert in a pick-up truck and carrying a machine gun as he fights to overthrow that government.

On Friday, the grad student was able to return to a classroom at the Pennsylvania school. Speaking via Skype live video-conference call, he talk to dozens of students and faculty about his role in a rebel army that is trying to bring an end to the 42-year regime of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi.

"We are not armed troops or terrorists," Hakim said. "We don't know how to use arms, but necessity requires that we fight."

Speaking from Benghazi, the de facto opposition capital in the eastern half of Libya's Mediterranean coast, Hakim outlined the rebels' vision for a new government, including establishing a constitution that guarantees many of the freedoms that he enjoyed during his time in the United States. A poster of an American flag hung on a wall behind him.

Hakim is not alone in traveling back to his homeland to fight. Since the start of the conflict, when opposition forces seized most of the eastern half of Libya's Mediterranean coast, hundreds of Libyans have returned from the United States, Europe and elsewhere to lend their skills to the rebel cause.

Hakim went home after finishing the fall semester at Lehigh and decided to stay, taking a leave from the university, where he had made many friends with whom he remains in close contact.

They have followed the conflict closely through his emails, many of which described unthinkable conditions.

"Sometimes it would be days until we would get an email back from Issa, and we were like, 'Well, at least he's still alive," said associate dean John Coulter, who served as Hakim's academic advisor.

The emails described a scenario in which people can't go to hospitals for fear government loyalists will show up and kill them, and families emptying refrigerators to store their dead loved ones for fear that if they are seen burying them, they too will be killed.

Hakim's claims could not be verified.

Joined by a room full of opposition members, Hakim took questions from students and implored NATO forces to offer more help to the rebels, including very specific requests for anti-tank aircraft to help fight Gadhafi's more well-armed forces.

"What is the legacy you want this revolution to leave for the younger and unborn generations in Libya and around the world?" one student asked.

Hakim said he hopes the legacy is peace, and that future generations can say "One day we had to fight, and we don't now have to use arms."

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