Rebel Chief Asks for Timely Strikes, Helicopters

The top military commander of Libya's rebels said opposition fighters are unlikely to make significant gains against Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces unless the North Atlantic Treaty Organization responds more quickly to requests for airstrikes, and gives the rebels advanced weapons, including helicopters.

"If NATO listens to us and takes our requests seriously, this war won't last long," said rebel Chief-of-Staff Gen. Abdel Fattah Younis, in an interview at a safe house in a rural suburb of Benghazi. "If they don't give us what we are asking for, I don't know how long it will last."

Fearing attack by pro-Gadhafi sleeper agents in rebel territory, Gen. Younis and other senior rebel leaders sleep and hold meetings in rotating, undisclosed locations.

On Edge in Libya

Gen. Younis said NATO needed to provide advanced long-range weaponry to rebel forces, and allow rebel forces to acquire and fly helicopters against Col. Gadahfi's forces. Rebel leaders have consistently voiced frustration with the limited weapons in their arsenal, which is largely consists of small arms, such as machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and short-range rockets.

"The international community needs to send us weapons we can confront Gadhafi with," Gen. Younis said. "At least we need weapons equal to Gadhafi's."

U.S. officials have expressed reservations about training and equipping rebels, saying they still know little about the actual composition of rebel forces. "We know a few of their leaders, but there's just a whole lot more we don't know," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in congressional testimony last week.

Key U.S. lawmakers have also appeared hesitant to fund arms for the Libyan opposition.

"As far as arming, we've tried this in the past in other areas, and a lot of that armament ends up getting used against us, so I think it's something we have to be pretty careful about," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on Monday. "And we don't really know much about the opposition, who we would be arming."

Gen. Younis served as minister of interior under Col. Gadhafi, but resigned and defected to the rebels soon after the uprising began on Feb. 17. Before serving as minister of interior he commanded a special forces brigade in the Libyan military.

He is seen as an able military commander who has intimate knowledge of how Col. Gadhafi's forces operate. But his long years of service to the regime have also caused some rebels to doubt his commitment to their cause.

In addition, a leadership dispute has emerged between Gen. Younis and Col. Khalifa Hiftar, a decorated ex-Libyan army officer who returned to Libya last month from exile in the U.S.

Mr. Hiftar was named commander of the rebel forces after returning home, but rebel leaders later backtracked, saying Gen. Younis was the sole commander and that Mr. Hiftar had no official position.

Gen. Younis played down the divisions. "There was some confusion over the matter," he said. "He was never officially appointed to command. He is welcome to serve under the command of the chief of staff if he wants to."

Gen. Younis said a team of Western NATO personnel were helping coordinate airstrikes out of a rebel command center somewhere outside of Benghazi.

NATO officials have said the alliance has no ground forces in Libya. The U.S. has said it has Central Intelligence Agency operatives aiding the rebels.

"NATO is doing a good job, but they're slow," Gen. Younis said. "When we ask for an airstrike we wait anywhere from six to 10 hours. We asked to use our fighter jets, but NATO hasn't give us clearance."

He said the rebel forces had asked multiple European countries to provide them with helicopters but had yet to receive a response. He said the rebels already had some functioning helicopters and had trained pilots but were hoping to order more modern aircraft from other countries.

Gen. Younis said that the key to defeating Col. Gadhafi's forces on the eastern front would be whether rebel forces could successfully take out his rocket and artillery systems.

At the top of the list of rebel weapons demands are long-range artillery and rocket systems that would allow the rebel forces to stand back and pummel Col. Gadhafi's positions.

That tactic has been a key to the success of pro-government forces throughout much of the fighting in recent weeks. The harrowing artillery barrages from government positions miles away sent untrained rebel volunteers panicking in retreat.

Defected rebel army commanders assumed control of the fight against Mr. Gadhafi's forces late last week under orders from the rebels' provisional governing body, the Transitional National Council.

In the days since they have been slowly deploying units to the front and trying to impose a measure of military discipline and a coherent military strategy on the rebel war effort.

On Monday, the army announced that all active duty military personnel in eastern Libya were required to return to duty within 72 hours or face legal consequences. Gen. Younis said only 60% of military personnel in the east were currently reporting for work each day but he was confident the number would soon increase.

Gen. Younis said the rebels had received some shipments of light weapons from other countries, but wouldn't specify which countries had supplied them.

He said rebel diplomacy had succeeded in convincing the Dubai government to step in at the last minute and block a shipment of 500 Toyota Land Cruisers ordered by Mr. Gadhafi's forces.

[Source: By Charles Levinson, The Wall Street Journal, Benghazi, Lby, 05Apr11]

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