Veteran Libyan soldiers who defected to the rebel side teach volunteers the basics of mortars, machine guns, small rockets and anti-aircraft artillery.
Veteran Libyan soldiers who defected to the rebel side teach volunteers the basics of mortars, machine guns, small rockets and anti-aircraft artillery. Eric Westervelt/NPR
Rebel fighters aren't waiting around as an international coalition debates whether to do more to arm and train them in battling Col. Moammar Gadhafi's troops. They've ramped up a crash training course for volunteers in hopes of better organizing the improvised army that is struggling to make sustained military gains against the autocratic regime.
In a sprawling cement lot of a military base in the rebels' stronghold of Benghazi, two teenagers practice setting up the heavy tripod barrel and base of a mortar system as a trainer watches carefully.
One of the new rebel recruits undergoing training is 32-year-old academic Anas Abu Buker, a communications engineer from the small city of Baida, two hours from Benghazi. Abu Buker was set to enter a doctoral program at Washington State University until the revolution of Feb. 17 radically changed his plans.
"Two weeks ago, I was lecturer at university," he says. "Right now I should be in the U.S. doing my Ph.D."
When asked whether a few days with a mortar crew will prepare him to go to the front lines where people are dying and fighting, Abu Buker says the rebels have no choice.
"We can't go back to how it was before," he says. "I didn't have any experience in the military, but we have no choice. That's it — we have no choice."
There are seven teams of several dozen new recruits all squatting in the sun to learn the basics of mortars, machine guns, small rockets and anti-aircraft artillery.
They're learning with live fire — no dummy rounds here. In one corner of the lot, there's even a mini course in plastic explosives and rocket-propelled-grenade fire.
Ihab Budabuus (front, second from right) and other recruits are learning with live fire in the cement lot of a military base in Benghazi.
Ihab Budabuus (front, second from right) and other recruits are learning with live fire in the cement lot of a military base in Benghazi. Eric Westervelt/NPR
"I'm not afraid, and neither is my family," says Ihab Budabuus, a new recruit. The fresh-faced high school student looks 13 but says he's 17. "This is for our country and God protects."
Budabuus says his older brother is on the front line.
In just a few weeks, the training program has become better organized and more efficient, but it's still unclear whether it will produce more disciplined, skilled fighting units out in the desert.
Rebel fighter Mohammed el Fahdy says members of the Libyan military only recently joined the opposition's side. "Since we have our army back, we've started reorganizing with them and coordinating with them," he says. "But it takes time."
But they don't have much time. The revolution's ragtag militia has been unable to hold ground they would not have gained without Western airstrikes and missile attacks on Gadhafi loyalists. This week they regained and quickly lost control of an important coastal oil town and were pushed back farther east.
'The Men, Not The Weapons'
The trainers are veteran Libyan soldiers who defected to the rebel side during the uprising. Saleh Mansour Sahati, who spent more than 17 years in Gadhafi's army, says while training is essential, the revolution still needs better weapons.
"We need anti-tank rockets and artillery," he says. "The other side has Grad rockets and tanks, and we need bigger weapons to take those out."
Some analysts say the rebels have the weapons to win; they just don't know how to use them effectively. As a former U.S. intelligence official who closely monitors military developments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya put it: "The Taliban use the same, less powerful weapons against the coalition forces in Afghanistan, the most powerful armed forces in the world. ... The reason for the rebels' successive defeats is the men, not the weapons."
There's still disagreement among NATO allies on whether — and how — to help. In Washington, D.C., on Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged the rebels' urgent need for training but said it's a job better suited to America's European allies.
"What the opposition needs as much as anything right now is some training, some command and control, and some organization," Gates said. "That's not a unique capability for the United States, and as far as I'm concerned, somebody else can do that," Gates told the House Armed Services Committee.
For now, rebels are training and relying on men like 56-year-old retired hotel administrator Ibrahim Gilbani. The father of four says he had to stand up to Gadhafi, whom he has despised for more than four decades.
"You know you can't just stay at home and wait for him to come and kill us," he says. "We have to prepare ourselves."
Gilbani, who is nearing the end of his two-week course, says he's ready to go into the desert and face Gadhafi's troops — no matter the odds.
"I'm not a soldier," he says, "but I have to defend my country."