AJDABIYA, Libya — Military forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi advanced Sunday on this anxious town, a strategic linchpin on the doorstep of the opposition capital of Benghazi and within grasp of a highway crucial to recapturing the eastern border and encircling the rebellion with heavy armor and artillery.
After another day of headlong retreat, this time from the refinery and port at Brega, one town west of here, the rebels prepared for what some called a last stand at Ajdabiya, taking refuge in military barracks where they stacked ammunition boxes six deep, positioned a handful of tanks and tried to bring order to a jumble of small artillery and anti-aircraft guns. Bulldozers built berms three feet high near a pair of green, metal arches that mark the town’s entrance.
The fate of Ajdabiya, an eastern town of 120,000 near the Mediterranean coast, may prove decisive in the most violent and chaotic of the uprisings that have upended the Arab world. Under a sky turned gray by a menacing sandstorm, the rebels valiantly vowed victory but acknowledged the deficit posed by their weapons and pleaded for a no-flight zone that seemed a metaphor for any kind of international help.
“Our retreat is a tactic,” said Said Zway, 29, a civil engineer-turned-fighter, at Ajdabiya’s entrance. “We can wait until they impose a no-fly zone. If they don’t, what can we do, my friend? We fight and die. God is with us, God willing.”
¶From its ecstatic beginning, Libya’s uprising has taken a darker turn, as Colonel Qaddafi’s forces have recaptured Zawiyah, near Tripoli, and are now besieging Misurata, a commercial capital and an oasis of rebel control in the west. Officials in Tripoli talk with bluster, and a more sullen mood has settled over Benghazi, where reports of lawlessness grow.
¶The United Nations Security Council may take up this week an Arab League call for a no-flight zone over Libya, a decision that Colonel Qaddafi’s government deemed Sunday an “unexpected departure” from the league’s charter. The foreign ministers of major industrial nations are expected to consider the topic at a meeting in Paris on Monday. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is to fly on to Egypt and Tunisia afterward, and is expected to meet with Libyan opposition leaders.
¶But a front line that shifted eastward by the day and plunging morale here threatened to outpace a decision that still faces opposition from Russia and China and lacks the clear support of the United States and Europe.
¶The debate abroad overshadowed the stark reality on the ground — planes alone have not defeated the rebels, but rather a relentless onslaught of tanks, artillery, helicopters and ships at sea has sent rebels hurtling back the past several days from a series of oil towns along Libya’s flat, virtually indefensible coastal plain.
¶At the front, pleas for foreign help have grown by the day, from demands for a no-flight zone to growing calls for bombing of Libyan ships at sea, military bases and Bab al-Aziziya, the compound in Tripoli that serves as Colonel Qaddafi’s headquarters.
¶“We demand intervention from America, from Britain, from France!” shouted Wanis Kayhani, 42, a fighter waiting in a parked Toyota pickup near the front. “I personally want them to send troops from abroad to stop this dictator. I swear to God almighty!”
¶“No, no, that won’t work!” another fighter shouted.
¶“Whatever it takes,” Mr. Kayhani replied.
¶Libya’s former interior minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes, appeared unexpectedly before reporters in Benghazi on Sunday evening in his role as the new head of the rebel army and promised a vigorous defense of Ajdabiya, calling it a “key” city.
¶Once a close ally of Colonel Qaddafi and head of the country’s special forces, General Younes resigned his post in late February to join the rebels. He said that he had spent days at the front lines and acknowledged that opposition fighters had overextended: they advanced “too far, too fast and did not protect the areas they gained,” he said.
¶Striking an optimistic note, though, he cast the setbacks as a strategic decision.
¶“War is a matter of advance and tactical withdrawal,” he said. “What we are trying to do is lure him into an area where we can even the fight.”
¶The day began with military vehicles, ambulances, cars and pickup trucks loaded with everything from anti-aircraft guns to a coat rack fleeing Brega, which rebels held just Saturday. Winds blew sand across the street like drifting snow, as rebel trucks and cars hurtled down both lanes of a two-lane road toward an old sign that read, “Warning ... speeding is the quickest way to die.” There was no traffic going the other way.
¶They regrouped at the entrance to Ajdabiya, where only last week jubilant crowds of many hundreds had beckoned convoys of fighters west to Tripoli.
¶“We are going to defend Ajdabiya now, we have to defend Ajdabiya,” said Massoud Bousier, a 36-year-old fighter who fled Brega. “He has a tank and we have a stone. This Kalashnikov,” he said, raising his rifle, “does nothing. This is like a stone.”
¶So far, the strategy of an invigorated, though no less bizarre Colonel Qaddafi, absolute ruler here for nearly 42 years, has proven clear. With little regard for life, he has pummeled into submission rebel-held towns in his traditional stronghold of the west — Surt and Misuratah among them — and deployed to the east forces believed loyal to his sons to recapture strategic oil towns between his birthplace of Surt and Ajdabiya.
¶Ajdabiya is most strategic for its location, 100 miles from Benghazi and perched on a highway that bypasses eastern Libya’s coastal cities and cuts straight to the border with Egypt, which rebels have lightly defended. It was still unclear whether Colonel Qaddafi would try to take the city in a bloody battle or bypass it en route to Benghazi and the highway.
¶General Younes said he hoped Colonel Qaddafi’s forces would overextend as they advance, and many rebels speculated that his army was already running short on fuel.
¶Even in regions he controls, his rule remains contested. Women organized a small protest in the capital on Sunday, witnesses said, and a rebel spokesman in Misurata said 30 soldiers had defected from a brigade organized by Colonel Qaddafi’s son, Khamis, that has besieged the city.
¶But optimism was in short supply on the rebel side, and officials in Tripoli boasted they would quickly and easily, as they put it, liberate Benghazi, where the opposition has formed a state in waiting.
¶“You do not need a full-scale military attack because when we come to them, they just raise their hands and give up,” said Col. Minad Hussein, a military spokesman.
¶At the edge of Ajdabiya, rebels tried to bring military discipline to the throngs of fervent youth who have volunteered to fight. Gates were closed to two makeshift military bases, where hundreds of boxes of ammunition were stacked in a sprawling courtyard. Volunteers filled dozens of sandbags that were lined behind berms and not yet tied shut.
¶On loudspeakers, rebel leaders urged the curious to leave.
¶“If you don’t have a tank or a heavy weapon, go back home,” one shouted.
¶Rumors swirled — that rebel special forces had encircled government forces in Brega after nightfall, that 8,000 volunteers were coming under cover of night from Benghazi and that Colonel Qaddafi was deploying mercenaries from Egypt. A fear of the unknown endemic to wartime rippled through a town of dull buildings interspersed with pastels of pink, orange and green. Doctors reported shortages of equipment at the hospital, and residents stocked up on infant formula, medicine and food.
¶“When you start fighting, do you think how it’s going to end?” asked Mr. Zway, the engineer. “You don’t. There is no chance to go back now, believe me. Believe me.”
¶A little ways away, near the bulldozer that build the sand embankment, a smiling Abdel-Salam Maatouk sat with friend and drank tea boiled on a small fire.
¶“You live how many times?” he asked. “Once. You die how many times? Once.”
¶His friends nodded, as he offered a smiling soliloquy: “We’ll draw the line at Ajdabiya. And then from there to Surt and then to Tripoli. God willing, I’ll be able to shout chants at Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, and I’ll be able to do that on a day soon.”
¶Maybe it did not really matter that he could say it tomorrow. He said it today. And as he did, the tea may have tasted a little sweeter and the campfire felt a
¶Kareem Fahim in Benghazi and David D. Kirkpatrick in Tripoli contributed reporting.
By ANTHONY SHADID/Nyt