Libya revolution filters slowly to desert towns

By Ben Hubbard

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 18 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

El Haj Zidane Sherif Mohamed, 76, center, prepares for the afternoon muslim prayer in Shwayrif , 400 kms south of Tripoli in the south desert of Libya, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011.

Francois Mori, Associated Press

SCHWERIF, Libya — The tumultuous change of power in far-off Tripoli was for weeks little more than a rumor in this small sun-baked town deep in Libya's desert, its news brought in by travelers down the long, desolate ribbon of highway that links Schwerif to the outside world.

Finally last week, a group of fighters following Libya's new rulers drove through. They negotiated with local elders to lower the green flags of Moammar Gadhafi's regime. Then they headed off for battle further south, leaving a contingent of local supporters out-gunned and out-numbered by Schwerif's largely pro-Gadhafi residents.

On a recent afternoon, rockets screeched wildly overhead, thudding into the dirt randomly around the town of 3,200 after regime loyalists set fire to an ammunition dump to keep it out of the revolutionaries' hands. Like other terrified residents, Ali Abdullah, now head of the local revolutionary council, hid in his home with the cooking-off munitions whizzing by outside.

He has had no contact with the new leadership in Tripoli and, with electricity and telephones out, isn't even sure how to reach them.

"We understand the idea of the revolution, so we're trying to carry it out here by ourselves," he said.

Libya's revolution is only slowly filtering down into the remote towns that dot the bleak stretches of the Sahara Desert making up most of the country. When it does arrive, its presence is often theoretical, cut off from Tripoli's National Transitional Council, the closest thing Libya has to a government, and tied up in long-standing local conflicts. In one town, the revolution simply meant a flip in control between a pro-Gadhafi tribe and a rival tribe.

Libya's civil war was centered on the Mediterranean coast, starting in February in the seaside eastern city of Benghazi and culminating Aug. 21 when rebel forces stormed into the capital Tripoli, ending Gadhafi's rule. Except for fighting in the western Nafusa mountains bordering the plain, all other major battles took place in the coastal strip where the majority of Libya's 6 million people live.

The new leaders are focusing their efforts to build a new government there. But to extend their control over all of Libya and its oil riches, they must integrate the long-neglected desert communities along the roads connecting Libya to West and Central Africa.

Reporters from The Associated Press drove south from the Nafusa mountains and along the way found towns still trying to figure out the meaning of what has happened in their country.

As isolated as the towns are, they constitute Libya's "near" hinterland. Another 200 miles south, across naked stretches of rocky wasteland lies Sabha, a major Gadhafi stronghold, and beyond that even more remote desert dotted with towns still dominated by old regime supporters. Unconfirmed rumors in the desert towns talk ethnic Tuareg warriors or mercenaries from Darfur holed up and ready to fight for Gadhafi. Many also believe Gadhafi and top aides are hiding in the deepest south.

One of the first towns driving south from the Nafusa mountains is Mizda, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Tripoli.

The revolution has split the town in half.

For decades, the Mashashia tribe was on top, close to Gadhafi's regime and rewarded with government jobs and projects. Gadhafi remains popular on the east side of town where they live.

When one resident, Mokhtar Ibrahim, was asked how "the revolution" had affected the town, he first assumed the reference was to the 1969 military coup that brought Gadhafi to power.

"The new revolution has not reached us here yet," he said, rattling off things Gadhafi had given the town: a new mosque, a hospital, two sports clubs.

"We had no problems on any side," he said. "Life was secure and there weren't many weapons. Now — poof!"

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