Special from Libya: Training center signals rebels’ change in priorities

Misrata — The military police volunteers line up single file and stream toward a concrete wall defining the perimeter of the school-turned-security training center, located on the outskirts of Misrata, Libya’s besieged and ravaged western port city.

They scale the barrier somewhat awkwardly, albeit with fervor, and tiptoe a few meters to a rope leading across a sandpit to a tattered basketball hoop. Some give it a go. Backs to the ground, they hang from the rope and pulley themselves briefly before conceding defeat and dropping to the ground. Others bypass the exercise, opting instead to jump from the wall while invoking an audible “Allah Ahkbar!”
At the other end of the rope, the recruits of the uprising that has swept Libya over the past three months, climb the back of the basketball hoop and jump to the ground from atop the backboard, ending one segment of the daily instructional routine.
“They are being trained to keep the peace,” says instructor and spokesperson for the Howla Center for Training the Martyr’s of 17 February, Captain Hussein Mir Doghmar. “Many more people like thugs have weapons now. And of course there’s no more civilian police.”
Sunday’s workout is one component of a seven to ten-day program that teaches self-defense, fitness and maneuverability to Misrata’s future rebel combatants and security personnel. The training at Howla is part of a concerted effort, spearheaded by three main camps but aided by subsidiary, smaller facilities, that has graduated roughly 12,000 individuals and continues to churn out an estimated 500 recruits every program period.
The priorities here at Howla depict a rising trend within the Libyan rebel ranks. Authorities in the primary western rebel stronghold are now shifting the focus of their resistance campaign to improving safety in Misrata rather than flooding the front lines with ill-prepared fighters. With meager or poor resources, they’re training everything from “elite” battalions to technicians to teams designed to secure sites of vital interest, such as the city’s ports and electricity facilities.
“In the beginning we were restricted on time,” says Doghmar. “First they were just able to load and reload a gun. Now we have much more time to give detailed instruction.”
As Misrata’s youths train for the various security roles needed in a recently liberated but still vulnerable city, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi’s GRAD missiles fill the sky with thunderously ominous sounds of impact, touching down roughly 15 km to the west of the city.
But the recruits, the defected soldiers and civilians who oversee this facility, and all Misrata’s residents are used to the sinister symphony. It’s the shift from urban fighting to relatively distant clashes that’s proving unfamiliar. The revolutionaries have, only in recent days and weeks, managed to forcibly expel Qadhafi’s tanks and purge the city of the last remnants of sniper cells.
“In the early days, for the first two and a half months, we sent 80 percent to the front lines,” says Mohamed Mohamed Ali, retired infantry general under Qadhafi and warden of Howla. “No real soldier can be trained in ten days. Its much easier to train to defend ourselves.”
Ali says rebel authorities in the embattled city are now putting only 40 percent of volunteers on stand-by for front-line service, with few actually seeing combat. The move falls in line with the rebel-embraced strategy in recent weeks of ensuring control over an area before advancing. Early in the conflict, those seeking Qadhafi’s ouster stretched themselves severely thin on Libya’s eastern front, west of Ajdabiya, and were forced to launch a massive retreat with loyalist forces on their heels.
It also potentially contradicts reports from the entrenched front line to Misrata’s west, 20 km from the city center in Dafneya, that suggest plans for an imminent push towards Zlitan, the next city in line toward the capital Tripoli.
“It’s all up to NATO. They tell us if we can get past a certain point,” says Ali. “Its much easier to defend the city. With all the desert and open environment around us it’s very, very difficult to advance. It would require heavy artillery and ammunition.”
The facility, and the rebel forces in Misrata as a whole, lack impressive material resources — as a modified anti-aircraft gun fastened to a wheel barrow at Howla indicates — but there is no dearth of personnel or zeal.
“The things I saw in the first days [of the siege]…the houses attacked and women humiliated,” says Emad Omar Moussa, a 21-year-old former engineer student now training to become part of a team geared to secure vital sites. “I want to defend my brothers and sisters in Islam. I want to fight.”
The security concentration appears to be having an impact on the port city. Shops are beginning to open and everyday more people return to the streets of Misrata to assess the damage of Qadhafi’s sustained assault.
Ibrahim Sowaieb, the owner of a once posh, now badly damaged coffee shop just one block from the area of notorious Tripoli Street still cordoned off due to fears of unexploded ordinances, opened for business on Sunday after two and a half months of closed doors.  
“Now we are more relaxed with the increasing number of checkpoints and patrols,” says Sowaieb. “Aside from the threats from Qadhafi troops, I don’t perceive any problems. I feel safe. The checkpoints are making the city secure.”
The main six-block stretch of the city’s primary downtown thoroughfare, one end located adjacent to Sowaieb’s coffee shop, is literally devastated. Every building has been reduced to rubble and ruin. Every standing fa├žade is riddled with bullet holes, some inches in diameter.
Burned out tanks and cars litter the ground and both broken glass and shrapnel mark nearly every foot of the street for roughly a half-kilometer. This is where the most horrific indiscriminate shelling and sniper attacks took place.
But the products of training camps such as Howla, young men who rarely exceed 20 years in age, station themselves around Tripoli street and throughout Misrata twenty-four hours a day to ensure the city does not degenerate into lawlessness. Hassan Omar Assoudi, 20, mans a checkpoint at the southern end of street’s Insurance Building, the infamous bird’s nest position for many of Qadhafi’s professional snipers.
“There is no immediate or direct threat now but everything is still expected,” says Assoudi, adding the he and his fellow security personnel are now acting as protectors of the revolution. “We add more checkpoints as necessary according to the demand.”
Clashes continue to rage west of Misrata with at least one reported rebel death Sunday, evidencing Qadhafi’s unwillingness to throw in the towel any time too soon. Fighters returning from the front said sniper fire during a rebel reconnaissance mission caused the fatality. Medical sources at al-Hikma clinic confirmed the death.
Despite both rebel claims that Qadhafi forces cannot breach the city and the coordinated efforts underway to usher life in Misrata back to normality, the amassed loyalist force near Zlitan will undoubtedly serve to ensure lingering disquiet.
“The more we push them [Qadhafi’s forces] out,” says Sowaieb, “the more we feel safe.”

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