Tribal frictions and secret informants have stalled efforts by Libyan interim government troops to establish control over one of Muammar Qaddafi’s last remaining bastions of resistance.
At Bani Walid, a besieged city still loyal to the deposed leader, anti-Qaddafi fighters said traitors among their ranks were passing information to Qaddafi loyalists inside the city, making progress difficult on one of the last frontlines of Libya’s 7-month-long war.
The interim government has sent additional brigades to Bani Walid – home to Libya’s biggest tribe, the Warfalla – to help take the stubborn city. But some fighters on the ground said the move had only added tension to existing tribal sensitivities.
“Locals don’t listen to NTC (interim government) commanders,” said one fighter, Esam Herebish. “They do what they like. They want to be seen as the city's liberators.”
Others openly accused some local Warfalla fighters of betrayal following days of fierce fighting.
“We believe there are traitors among them,” said Mohammed al-Gahdi, a fighter from the coastal city of Khoms.
He said suspected informants were feeding information to Qaddafi forces about his unit’s movements, leading to an ambush on Sunday in which one fighter was killed.
“When we go into the city we trust no one. We don’t need Bani Walid fighters. We need bigger weapons and artillery.”
Progress was not visible following days of fighting. Bani Walid is still under Gaddafi's control. Explosions boom around the steep, sun-scorched valleys that surround the city from the north as forces loyal to the deposed leader continue to shell rebel positions.
Inside Bani Walid, loyalist gunmen holed up in the hilly city center fire relentlessly from rooftops and pour oil down the streets to block rebel advances, fighters said.
NATO warplanes bombed Qaddafi artillery positions on Saturday to help anti-Qaddafi forces advance into the city but fighters said the air strikes had done little to change the picture.
Gazing down into a dusty valley from a rocky hill, one fighter said he had not expected remnants of Qaddafi’s once mighty force to be still so relentless.
“They are firing mortars. Last night we came under a hail of Grad rockets. I don’t know what we are going to do now,” said the fighter, Mohammed Ibrahim. “I have to admit they have more experience. This front is very difficult.”
Others suggested tensions existed even among committed Warfalla fighters because of their close tribal links to the people inside the city.
“Bani Walid fighters say it’s their town, they want to liberate it themselves,” said al-Gahdi, the Khoms fighter. “But when they see their uncles’ or cousins’ homes they don't want to shoot. This town is difficult. It’s strange.”
Relations between Warfalla fighters and their comrades from other parts of Libya have not been easy even on the surface, adding the element of tribal discord to the already complicated military picture.
Relations between tribes are a sensitive issue in Libya where Qaddafi deliberately magnified tribal divisions to maximize control over a fractured society.
At Bani Walid, these tensions were all too obvious.
A unit from Tripoli, deployed from the capital to help with the advance, was stopped at a checkpoint and made to wait on the side of the road as Bani Walid fighters streamed towards the city waving flags and flashing victory signs.
Tripoli fighters were disgruntled.
“Bani Walid people are not easy to work with. They think it’s their town, they want to lead,” said Hafid Bellal, a soldier from Tripoli’s Tajoura neighborhood.
“We are fighting for Libya, for freedom. We have liberated Benghazi, Nalut, Zintan. We are all Libyans.”
Warfalla fighters themselves deny there are any tribal tensions.
“I am from the Warfalla. Of course if it's possible to liberate Bani Walid on our own, we would love to do that,” said Salah Mohammed, a fighter, as he rested on a bench near a mosque north of the city after a day of fighting.
“We are not stopping anyone from helping us. If we have a chance, we would like to lead. But if that is not possible then we welcome help. We are all from the same tribe.”