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'Oh, freedom!' cry Libyans in Tripoli

| Friday, Aug. 26, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya - In the early morning, rebels man checkpoints on streets where, a day earlier, they battled government forces.

They clearly remain excited over seizing most of this capital from Col. Moammar Gadhafi, Libya's brutal, mercurial dictator of four decades.

Standing between bullet-scarred buildings and charred cars, Emad Shabaan, 35, cradles an assault rifle and smiles while checking the few vehicles in the downtown neighborhood of Al Dhahra. "California Surfing" is scrawled across his dark-blue T-shirt.

"It was so, so, so dangerous," the marketing manager for a now-defunct oil company says of Tripoli's past six months. "Gadhafi brought people from Africa to kill us."

Tension over a fight unfinished remains a constant here. Shops are all shuttered, and sniper-fire pierces the air.

Even so, Tripolitans today are reveling in the liberation that Libya's eastern cities felt after ousting Gadhafi loyalists last spring.

Finally free to speak, they can't stop talking about life under Gadhafi.

"We want the rule of law, real education, and health care," says Sheik Ahmed Farhat, 51. The imam of a local mosque, he wears a long white gown, a white cotton cap and a brown-and-tan vest. "We will be a modern country, like any other."

"We were dead" during Gadhafi's 41 years, he says. "Our (national) flag was green - now we have three colors," referring to the rebels' green, black and red flag. "Gadhafi, he lives in the green, and we lived in the blood and darkness."

Shabaan recalls that, under Gadhafi, "if you express yourself in the street, they will kill you." Then he takes a deep breath and exclaims, "Oh, freedom!"

Neighborhood mini-councils organized a resistance "in the shadows" for the past six months, he says. "We tried to keep everything together until the right time."

As the uprising began, he recounts, Gadhafi told Libyans that the West was "coming for our oil. Who has he been selling our oil to for the last 40 years?"

Farhat thanks the United States, NATO and "every country that stood with us."

Shabaan says the neighborhood's mosque was named for King Idris, whom Gadhafi deposed in 1969. Gadhafi renamed it Al Jihad Mosque, and "now we have changed it back."

A man hands over a fat file folder, taken from a nearby office building that's next to the Dutch Embassy. He and others say Gadhafi loyalists, calling themselves the Unique Hawk Brigade, used the office.

The folder is crammed with brigade registration documents. Each includes a name, photo, group number and type of weapon, detailed down to the number of bullets.

"I know this guy!" Sheikh Farhat exclaims, examining a photo. "He was working with me in a toy company."

He spits on the photo and shouts, "He's a dog!"

Inside the office, military uniforms and a torn Gadhafi poster are strewn on the floor; bread sits on a table. Farhat picks up a uniform jacket and says the loyalists "took them off when they ran away."

In another room, more documents and photos identify women, some veiled, as brigade members. Among the small pile of papers are green-and-white gun permits, transcriptions of monitored phone calls and a photocopy of anti-Gadhafi protesters in the capital's Green Square. The photo is marked with "A picture of the traitors" and the protesters' names.

Farhat says brigade members were "not fighting for Gadhafi, they are fighting for money, and they ran away."

He angrily adds: "Gadhafi, we should hang him in Green Square!"

No, says Shabaan, "there has to be a trial."

"After a trial, we should hang him in Green Square!" the imam persists.

"If I see him, I will shoot him," Shabaan concedes, "but we should put him on trial."

Walking past the French ambassador's residence, Farhat points to pro-Gadhafi graffiti on a wall - "Allah, Moammar and Libya!" and a curse against "traitors and agents."

Shabaan gestures toward another building. "That is the Serbian embassy. Nothing on it, because they supported Gadhafi."

"Freedom or we die, that's all," he says, his smile returning. "Gadhafi's never going to rule us again. He's a demon."

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