Berenice Stories

Short Stories by John Oakes

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LIBYAN TRIBES II – A TALE OF TWO SIEGES – MISURATA AND BANI WALID

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The Battle of Misurata between Gaddafi’s forces and the ‘17th February Rebels’ was bloody and brutal and lasted from 18th February to 15th May 2011. It is sometimes known as the Siege of Misurata during which the bombardment of the city with Grad missiles and artillery by the Gaddafi loyalist army left at least 2,000 rebels and civilians dead and 900 injuries resulting in loss of limbs. For much of the time Khamis Gadaffi conducted the siege on behalf of his father. The anti-Gaddafi rebel forces broke the siege with the aid of air and naval assistance from NATO and considerable support from Qatar.
The siege of Bani Walid by militia forces, mainly from Misurata but also including the Libya Shield Brigade, has been underway during October 2012. As I write it appears to be drawing to a close. Bani Walid is the desert stronghold of the Warfella tribe and was the last foothold of Gadaffi loyalists. It capitulated to the anti-Gaddafi forces 17th October 2011. Since that time the Bani Walid leadership has been at odds with the Misuratans who believe that Gaddafists have been given shelter in the town. It was these Gaddafists, they say, who captured and tortured a number of Misuratans, one of whom was Omran Shaban who died of wounds in their custody after a deal had been struck for his release. Omran Shaban was the Misuratan militiaman who found Col Gaddafi hiding from a NATO air strike in a storm drainage pipe in Sirte a year ago. The death of Omran Shaban was the flash point which launched the Misuratan militias on Bani Walid. They were supported by the new Libyan government and some militias from elsewhere. It is likely that 22 people were killed and 200 wounded in the fighting. The refugee problem was, and remains, acute. On 22nd October the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that 25,000 people had fled the urban area.
News of the siege of Bani Walid reached the wider world and the USA and Russia exchanged diplomatic views in the United Nations Security Council and there are reports to the effect that the United States has blocked a draft statement, proposed by Russia, on the resolution of violence in Bani Walid.
There has been some speculation amongst international observers about the real reason for the Siege of Bani Walid. Many have missed a significant clue. When the Misuratan militiamen entered Bani Walid in October 2012 they fly posted walls with leaflets in memory of the historic Misuratan hero, Ramadan al Shtaiwi. This suggests that long standing enmity between the Misurata and the Warfella tribes is a prime factor.
Muammar Gaddafi’s policy of divide and rule amongst the tribes created a great deal of bottled up enmity. He showered cash and other inducements on the Warfella tribe to purchase its loyalty during the rebellion. The resentment of the Misuatans who were so brutally besieged is a not, therefore, unexpected. A statement made on 30th October by the currant Libyan Defence Minister, Osama Juwaili, to the effect that the head of the Libyan armed forces, General Yousef Mangoush, has no control over Bani Walid and refugees are being prevented from returning adds to the uneasy confusion felt by international observers.
A small excursion into Libya’s history and geography is necessary to understand the background to the siege and the significance of Ramadan Shtaiwi to the Misuratans. The modern road from Misurata to Ajadabia is built around the shores of the Gulf of Sirte which thrusts its way into the desert. If you look at the map, you can see that there are really two Gulfs of Site, the lesser and the greater. The map makes them look like two successive mouthfuls taken out of the north coast of Libya. The arid and remote hinterland of the Gulf of Sirte, the Sirtica, is the homeland of some notable tribes such as the Warfella, the Aulad Bu Saif, the Al Gaddadfa, the Aulad Suleiman and the Al Magharba.
Almost exactly a century ago the Italians decided to seize the Ottoman province of Libya and colonise it themselves. They captured Tripoli with relative ease but found it much harder to quell the Libyan tribes of the interior. One of the great obstacles to their advance was the tribes of the Sirtica. In order to reach this inhospitable place it was, and still is, necessary to pass through Misurata which is at the eastern end of the coastal oasis surrounding Tripoli.
The Italians attempted to take the Sirtica but the tribes, notably the Aulad bu Sief, soundly defeated them. As part of an Italian counter attack in April 1915 Colonel Miani entered the Sirtica from Misurata with a 4,000 strong Italian battle group. He was accompanied by 3,500 Libyans led by Ramadan al Shtaiwi, the wily war lord of Misurata.
Arab resistance to his advance, commanded by the Senussi leader Sayyid Saif al Din, was concentrated in the Sirtica. Sayyid Saif al Din had with him some of the Tripolitanian tribes, notably the Aulad bu Saif. The resident Sirtica tribes were also in arms against the Italians.
Col. Miani had seriously misjudged his so called ally, Ramadan al Shtaiwi and his 3,500 Libyans, who turned against him and helped Safi al Din’s tribal warriors to defeat the Italians at Qasr bu Hadi on 29th April 1915. As a result of this notable defeat, the Italians lost their own rifles and ammunition, plus a reserve of 5,000 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition, several machine guns, and artillery with plenty of shells, the entire convoy of food supplies and even their bank. The Arab victory at Qasr bu Hadi has passed into Libyan tribal folk lore and is repeated from generation to generation.
The ancient feud between the Bedouin tribes of the Sirtica and the urban and coastal party in Tripoli and Misurata is probably reasserting itself. Ramadan al Shtaiwi emerges into history again. He defeated a group of Bedouin tribes led by the Senussis of Eastern Libya in a battle for power in the Sirtica on the outskirts of Bani Walid early in 1916. In the Siege of Bani Walid we may be witnessing a resurgence of an ancient feud. History has much to tell us but is too often forgotten.

LIBYA – WAS PRESIDENT OBAMA’S INTERVENTION IN LIBYA’S CIVIL WAR BELATED?

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Janet Daley, writing in the British ‘Sunday Telegraph’ today, appears to argue that the anti-American violence in the Islamic world is a by-product of President Obama’s Middle East policy. She states that: ‘He [Obama] retreated dramatically from confrontation in the Middle East: so much so that when the opportunity arose to remove the tyrant Gaddafi from power, he would offer only belated back-up to an Anglo-French initiative. (This did not, of course, prevent him taking credit, after the fact, for liberating the people of Libya from their oppression.)’
It is likely that he was wary of intervention for a number of reasons. As the events in Libya were unfolding I was writing my book ‘Libya – The History of Gadaffi’s Pariah State’ and said this therein: ‘The French and British governments had been working hard to construct a consensus in favour of military intervention on the good and clear evidence that Gaddafi was murdering civilians. President Sarkozy of France was taking the lead, perhaps to boost his popularity ratings which had slipped alarmingly. The Arab League was in favour of intervention since a number of its members were less than happy with Gaddafi, though their contribution was unlikely to extend further than diplomatic manoeuvring.
The USA was wary. The CIA had been concerned for some time about the uncomfortable presence of Libyan jihadists in Derna and Benghazi, who had been involved in the Afghan war. Libya watchers, and there must have been some in the CIA, MI6 and elsewhere, will not have forgotten the Islamic fundamentalist violence in the Gebel Akhdar (Green Highlands) of Cyrenaica – now called East Libya – between 1995 and 1998. The violence was fomented and largely controlled by ‘The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’. It was ruthlessly suppressed by Gaddafi using the Libya Air Force, though the aircraft that did the strafing and bombing were flown by Cubans and Serbs.’
In my blog of 13th September 2012 (LIBYA – HOW THE LIBYAN INTERIM NATIONAL COUNCIL ASKED FOR NATO’S HELP IN MARCH 2011) I explained how President Sarkozy opened a ‘back channel’ with the anti-Gadaffi leadership in Benghazi and recognised it as the legitimate government of Libya thus pre-empting others. I also showed that Hilary Clinton was sufficiently impressed by the arguments raised by Sarkozy and Jebril [see my 13th September blog] that she saw to it that UN security Council Resolution 1973 was approved, permitting intervention against Gaddafi. I also noted the Sarkozy’s foreign minister was excluded from the consultations and that German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. was not in favour of intervention. It might be said that Sarkozy’s actions were partly motivated by a need to improve his popularity ratings.
Despite the lack of unity amongst Europeans and the anxiety about al Qaida franchises in Libya Obama authorised his forces to act. On 19th March 2011, Tomahawk missiles fired from US and UK navy vessels hit air defences around Tripoli and Misurata and French jets attacked Gaddafi’s armour near Benghazi. The city was saved but just in time. Tanks were in its western approaches and Gaddafi’s snipers were firing from buildings very close to the rebel headquarters in the court house. It would be as well to remember that President Obama, for a number of reasons no doubt, offered crucial but limited assistance and required NATO to assume command of the No Fly Zone.’
So Janet Daley is nearly right but her neat change of emphasis makes Obama sound weak. She states that Obama offered belated back-up. I argue that he offered timely back-up but he had good reason to be cautious. An al Qaida franchise may have been embedded in Libya.
This appeared in the Libya Herald online toady: ‘Questions are being asked both in the US and in Libya whether there is an Al-Qaida link [to the killing of the US ambassador to Libya and some of his colleagues]. It is being suggested that the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigade, which supports al-Qaida, was behind the attack. National Congress Speaker Mohamed Magarief himself has already indicated that it is not coincidental that that attack took place on the anniversary of al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks on the US.’