By Ben Gilbert
It was another day of multiple developments regarding Libya. US military leaders announced that American planes will stop flying missions over Libya Saturday. Aircraft from other NATO countries are expected to keep the air-strikes going. And on the ground Friday, troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi bombarded the last major rebel-held city in the west – Misrata. Fighting between government troops and rebels also continued further east – in the town of Brega.
Gaddafi has blamed the rebellion against him on Al Qaeda and Islamist militants who he's suggested are mixed in with locals in various cities and towns in the east.
The town of Darnah is just the kind of place the Libyan leader might mean. It's nestled on the Mediterranean Sea at the foot of Libya's green mountains. Residents gladly joined in the February uprising that chased Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's troops and police from the city. Its 50,000 residents have a long history of fierce resistance to outsiders.
Darnah was a hotbed of opposition to Italian colonialism in the early and mid 1900's. The city put up stiff resistance to American troops during the First Barbary War. And more recently, the city sent 52 of the 112 Libyans who joined the fight against US troops in Iraq between 2006 and 2007. Near the Sahaba mosque downtown, two of the latest martyrs are buried. Local residents say they died fighting on the front line against Libyan Leader Muamar Gaddafi's troops.
These are just the latest — no one knows how many have died here since the uprising began
Thorn in Gaddafi's Side
In 1970 the town's residents rebelled against Gaddafi troops stationed here. Residents point with pride to the brand new four star hotel that occupies the army barracks former location. At that hotel, Karim Bindaher, an English teacher and spokesperson for the rebel's council here, said his brother was paralyzed by a bullet shot by Gaddafi's troops during the 1970 rebellion. Another brother fled to England, where he remained until early this year. Bindaher said another rebellion in 1996, led in part by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, again brought Gaddafi's wrath.
"He brought most of his army to this area, and searched every house, and like he said in one of his speeches, 'I will search every house, every alleyway,' and he did it," Bindaher said. "My house was searched room by room in order to find anything."
Troops and helicopters attacked the city. Bindaher said Gaddafi's enforcers tied dead bodies to car hoods and drove them around town, warning other residents not to rebel. The rebellion seemed to stem in part at least from the city's mosques.
Many Darnah residents were killed. Scores of Darnah's residents were arrested, especially Islamists, and some fled. One of them is the current security officer and rebel commander of Darnah, Abdul-Hakim al-Hasidi. Hasidi fled from the town in 1996 because he said he was a devout Muslim.
"At that time, Gaddafi was fighting Muslims, so anyone who was praying in mosques, or trying to keep his faith or religion, was captured and disappeared without a trace," Hasidi said.
Hasidi fled to Sudan, and eventually Afghanistan, where he lived for five years, and counts an Afghan among his three wives. Dressed in green combat fatigues, he said he would have fought against the Americans during their invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, but there were no troops on the ground.
"In 2002, when I was there," he said, "there were no troops, just air strikes. So I did not see any Americans there."
US Image Boost
Hasidi was arrested and handed over to the Americans in 2002. He spent two months in American detention, and then released and returned to Libya. Now, Hasidi has fought on the front lines under American air cover. He said he's happy to do so.
"The Americans are helping the Libyan people," Hasidi said. "And the position of the USA and France in particular will help change the point of view of the Arabs and the way they look to the USA and European countries. Maybe now we can look at them in a positive way, like our friends, in the future."
Hasidi said he would like to see a democratic, constitutional state develop in Libya, but one that doesn't violate Islamic Sharia law. He doesn't want a Taliban-theocracy – he said he wants his daughters to go to school and work. Bindaher, the spokesperson for the rebel council, said the characterization of the rebels like Hasidi as "Al Qaeda" agents has been used by Gaddafi to try to scare the west.
"It's the bogeyman. He knows that the west is afraid of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and he's using this card, this bogeyman, to scare the Americans and Europeans to not support the Libyan people," Bindaher said.
Another resident, Fouad Saleh, said the high number of Darnah residents fighting in Iraq were due to Gaddafi. He said neglect and high unemployment bred extremism.
Hotbed of Extremism
"So I think if people have their rights, their freedom, jobs and future, they will not switch to other extreme Muslim or something like this," Saleh said.
The tree lined square in front of Darnah's Sahaba mosque doesn't look like the hotbed of extremism that some of the Wikileaks documents from the US Embassy or Gaddafi's statements would lead one to believe.
Children carrying the Libyan rebels' flag chanted on the mosque's steps in a tribute to the city's martyrs in the fight against Gaddafi. A local computer engineer organized the festive demonstration. She wore a hijab but shook a male reporter's hand when introduced.
"This demonstration represents hope, and the victory that will soon come, because the youth represent all of us now," the woman said. "The name of this demonstration is 'Odyssey Dawn,' after the name of the American operation to secure a no fly zone and protect civilians in Libya."