RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
The rebels in Libya are struggling to make long term military gains against Moammar Gadhafi's troops. The international alliance attacking Libya is debating whether to arm the rebels. Some CIA advisors are on the ground. But rebel forces are not waiting for more Western help. They've set up a crash training course for volunteer fighters, in hopes of better organizing their improvised army. NPR's Eric Westervelt sent this report from Benghazi in Libya.
Unidentified Man: This is a fresh group. For today, it's a fresh group. This is all fresh.
ERIC WESTERVELT: In a sprawling cement lot of a military base here in the rebel's stronghold of Benghazi, two teenagers practice setting up the heavy tri-pod barrel and base of a mortar system as their trainer watches carefully.
(Soundbite of clanking)
One of the new rebel recruits undergoing training is 32-year-old academic, Anas Abu Buker, a communications engineer from the small city of Bayda two hours from Benghazi. Abu Buker was set to enter a PhD program at Washington State University until the revolution of February 17th radically changed his plans.
Mr. ANAS ABU BUKER (Communications engineer): Two weeks ago, I was a lecturer at university. By now, I should be in U.S. doing my PhD.
WESTERVELT: This is enough, a few days with a mortar team, I mean, is that going to be enough to let you out on the front where people are dying and fighting?
Mr. ABU BUKER: Maybe it's not enough, but we cannot go back to how it was before. I didn't have any experience in the military, but we have no choice. That's it. We have no choice.
WESTERVELT: In all, 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 fire.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
Recruits are learning with live fire. There are no dummy rounds here. In one corner of the lot, there's even a mini course in plastic explosives and rocket propelled grenade fire.
(Soundbite of explosion)
Another recruit is a fresh-faced high school student, Ihab Budabuus. He looks 13, but says he's 17.
Mr. IHAB BUDABUUS: (Foreign language spoken)
WESTERVELT: No. No. I'm not afraid, and neither is my family, he says confidently. This is for our country and God protects. And I have my older brother in the front lines, he says.
In just a few weeks, the training program here has become better organized and more efficient. But it's still not clear if the training will produce more disciplined, skilled fighting units out in the desert. Rebel fighter, Mohammed el Fahdy.
Mr. MOHAMMED EL FAHDY (Rebel fighter): Only recently that our professional army has joined the people. Since we have our army back, we start re-organize with them and we start, you know, coordinating with them. But it takes time.
WESTERVELT: But the rebels don't have a lot of time. The revolution's ragtag militia has been unable to hold ground they would not have gained without western air strikes 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 trainers here are veteran Libyan soldiers who defected to the rebel side during the February 17th uprising. Saleh Mansour Sahati spent more than 17 years in Colonel Gadhafi's army. He says while training is essential, the revolutionaries still need better weapons.
Mr. SALEH MANSOUR SAHATI: (Foreign language spoken)
WESTERVELT: 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.
But some analysts believe 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 rebel's successive defeats, he said, is the men, not the weapons.
Mr. IBRAHIM GIBANI: I used to work as an accountant, manager of hotels.
WESTERVELT: Rebels are now training and relying on men such as 56-year-old retired hotel administrator Ibrahim Gibani. The father of four says he had to stand up to Gadhafi, a man he says he's despised for more than four decades.
Mr. GIBANI: You know you can't just stay at home waiting for him to come and kill us. We have to prepare our self. I won't leave him coming here and kill my family, for nothing.
WESTERVELT: Soon Gibani has to get back to machine gun training. He's nearing the end of his two week course. The retiree 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.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Benghazi.