Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Update on the Mood in Tripoli

Amid Rubble in Tripoli From Attacks, Hints of a Changed Atmosphere

By David D. Kirkpatrick
The New York Times
March 22, 2011

TRIPOLI — The Qaddafi government gave journalists a tour on Tuesday of the wreckage of two missile warehouses at the Tripoli port in the first public display of significant damage to the capital from the American and European airstrikes.

Inside the still smoldering remains of the warehouses were four Russian-made surface-to-air missile launchers with Cyrillic writing on them, a row of what appeared to be missiles and several burned-out military vehicles. Scraps of shrapnel had been blown as far as 50 yards from a deep crater near the center of the warehouse. Libyan naval frigates in the harbor were left untouched by the blast.

Some military officers on the scene said the site was merely a training or refueling location, and asserted that several people had been wounded in the attack. But Capt. Abdul Baset Ali, a Libyan naval officer, said no one had been injured or killed because the Libyan government had expected the attack and evacuated.

“Nobody was here because we knew this place may be targeted, so we went far away,” he said. Asked what the future holds for Libya, he said: “Nobody knows. We hope it will be good.”

One military officer, asking for anonymity so he could speak openly, said that he respected the Western goal of establishing a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians, but that the broad scope of the attacks risked creating a backlash. “This is not the way to shift out Qaddafi,” he said.

Though the airstrikes do not appear to have led to any new uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi here, there was evidence that they had had a significant psychological impact. On an organized stroll through the old city with Qaddafi government minders, several Tripoli residents approached foreign journalists to offer their disdain or impatience with the Qaddafi government. Sometimes they spoke within just a few yards of a government representative.

Offered the bromide that it was a beautiful country, one man replied in perfect English, “It will be after we change the system.”

Despite the government’s many warnings that the population was boiling with anger at the West over the airstrikes, there appeared to be no hint of hard feelings. Most people, even those with nothing to sell, were as eager as ever to talk about America or Europe and welcome Western strangers.

Several pointed to the perennial demonstration in support of Colonel Qaddafi in the city’s Green Square — in the early afternoon a few dozen people were waving green scarves and flags — and cautioned that it did not represent the real Libya. Some directed journalists to the rebellious neighborhoods of Tajura and Feshloom, to get a better sense of Libyans’ true feelings.

“People are very afraid, honestly,” one man said, explaining why most people still refused to talk. “They killed a lot of people in Tripoli, including one of my relatives. You have to be careful. They are watching right now.”

Other signs suggested that the Qaddafi government itself was bracing for more unrest. About half a dozen soldiers with machine guns were stationed behind a newly erected wall of sandbags in front of the Libyan central bank building. Asked about the wall, an official minder said the bank needed protection because the government had by now armed so many citizens for defense against the rebels — suggesting, perhaps inadvertently, that the newly armed citizens, many from poor neighborhoods known for strong support of Qaddafi, might themselves be a source of instability.

Colonel Qaddafi and officials of his government have said repeatedly in recent days that they were arming civilians to fight against the rebels, and nearby a 24-year-old man said he had returned two days ago from the front lines in Ajdabiya. He showed an identification card issued for the occasion and said the Qaddafi government had handed him a Kalashnikov on his way to the battle. But he said he did not kill anyone, and he seemed bewildered by his experience.

As the fourth night of airstrikes began about 8 p.m., a news conference broadcast over state television showed a group of tribal leaders in Tripoli announcing plans for a peace march — really a bus ride — to Benghazi as an attempt to unify the country.

Sitting in traditional white robes around a long conference room table under a towering portrait of a young Muammar el-Qaddafi, all talked about their desire to reconcile the warring factions of the country, without mentioning any substantive disagreements.

A reporter asked how they would resolve the philosophical differences between the Qaddafi government’s embrace of its current system and the rebels’ calls for a constitutional democracy.

“Our main purpose is to stop the bloodshed,” the group’s leader said, speaking through a government translator. “After that, everything is up for dialogue.

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