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Libyan battles reverberate

| Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011

TOBRUK, Libya — When Suleiman Mahmoud talked with family in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, the army general heard anti-aircraft and machine guns rattling in the background.

Afterward, he told junior officers he couldn't defend a regime that killed protesters in the streets. The officers told him "we will stand with you until the last," Gen. Mahmoud recalled Friday in an interview with the Tribune-Review.

When the general later told young protesters here that he had joined their uprising against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, they "put me on their shoulders like a hero."

But, he quickly adds, "I am not Spartacus, I am not Jefferson, I am not Washington" — just "against the devil" who once was a comrade.

Meanwhile, government paramilitary forces opened fire on protesters who swarmed the streets of the capital city of Tripoli in what opponents hoped would be a final push to topple Gadhafi's regime. Witnesses described multiple casualties from the fiercest violence yet in the Libyan capital.

It appeared that the regime had retained control, for now, of its major remaining stronghold. After the clashes, a defiant Gadhafi urged thousands of his supporters at a rally in the heart of the city to take up arms on his behalf.

Yet even as the Libyan leader spoke, his 41-year grip on power seemed to loosen further. There were reports that rebels had gained control of at least one key suburb of Tripoli, and several other towns, including heavily contested Zawiya, 20 miles west of the capital, were said to have fallen to the opposition.

High-level defections continued to weaken Gadhafi's regime, and the world community stiffened its response. The United States said it would impose sanctions, and the United Nations advanced a process that could lead to a war crimes prosecution against Gadhafi for a bloody crackdown on his own people.

In 1969, Mahmoud and other army officers joined Gadhafi in overthrowing King Idris, who had led Libya since it gained independence in 1951.

Mahmoud later served in the army's elite Republican Guard and commanded its Tobruk garrison.

Now the general with a long graying moustache and thinning gray hair is assembling an army to overthrow another government.

Tobruk, 90 dusty miles from the Egyptian border, is best known as a site of World War II battles. It is part of the eastern half of the country, including Benghazi, that bolted from Gadhafi's grasp in the past week.

Someone scrawled "The Free Libyan Army" in Arabic on a wall of Mahmoud's headquarters here. The soldiers, giddy with new independence, go on parade for foreign reporters. They wear ammunition bandoliers over their chests, raise their weapons and chant, "Free Libya! Gadhafi out!"

Overhead, a pre-Gadhafi flag of red, green and black flutters from a flagpole.

Like most Libyans here, Mahmoud dismisses Gadhafi's claim that al-Qaida is behind the uprising: "There is no al-Qaida here, just Muslims."

He hopes the United States and other world powers will impose a "no-fly" zone over Libya to prevent Gadhafi's forces from bombing Tobruk and other rebel cities. Freezing Gadhafi's assets in foreign banks would help, too, he says.

He doesn't want foreign troops to intervene, however. "Do you think we will surrender• No, we will fight to the last drop," he says, echoing Gadhafi's own vows to fight to the death.

Gadhafi remains dangerous, he concedes; the dictator's fifth son by his second wife commands tank and infantry regiments that protect him, and which attacked protesters elsewhere.

"This man will burn our country," he says, comparing Gadhafi to Nero.

Gadhafi "used to be a revolutionary but now he calls himself the 'King of Kings.' "

The general, switching from English to Arabic, is well-versed in U.S. history. He cites Jefferson, Thomas Paine and the Civil War to explain Libya's uprising; he praises American ideals of freedom and justice even as he criticizes Washington's Arab-Israeli policies as imbalanced.

He criticizes the U.S. response to this uprising: "In the last few years, America became friends with Gadhafi ... President Obama only made one comment on Libya but he commented on Egypt three times.

"The economy is more important than humanity, unfortunately ... all of those dictators are close to America.

"It's not that we don't like the Americans or Europeans," he says. "We have learned a lot from them ... (but) they should be with freedom and stand up with the people."

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