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Gadhafi turns to tribes to retake rebel-held western mountains
Al-AZIZIYA, Libya (AP) ' Dozens of horsemen in flowing robes sat on their mounts cheering as men around them fired AK-47s in the air, proclaiming their allegiance to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and their readiness to march on the rebel-held western mountains.
The pomp and bravado on display during the rally in the sweltering town square in al-Aziziya south of the capital is part of a concerted effort by Gadhafi to mobilize one of the pillars of his regime ' Libya's tribes ' to combat recent rebel advances.
"Look at the tribes of the Warshafana, who dares to challenge them? No one can; they will help free Libya from the hands of these rebels," Gadhafi's voice boomed out from speakers at the rally. "You are preparing today to march to the western mountains to cleanse it and liberate it from the traitors and mercenaries."
It's not the first time Gadhafi has tried to rally the tribes. Since the Libyan uprising began in mid-February, he has threatened to unleash angry tribesmen on opposition-held towns, although nothing ever materialized.
This time, the move appears aimed at countering the rebels' recent diplomatic and battlefield momentum in the nearby mountains.
Last week, more than 30 nations including the United States gave the rebels a boost by recognizing their National Transitional Council as the country's legitimate government, potentially freeing up billions of dollars in urgently needed cash.
And on Libyan soil, Arab and Berber rebels have driven Gadhafi's forces out of much of the Nafusa mountains, forming a third front against Tripoli. In the first week of July, when the rebels took the town of Qawalish, they were within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of Tripoli, although their advance has since stalled.
Over the past week, Gadhafi has started injecting more and more references to the tribes in his almost daily speeches and begun talking about a popular march of "millions" of tribesmen to reclaim the lost territory.
Sometimes it is an unarmed march of men, women and children, other times it sounds like more of a military operation, but at the very least it suggests some kind of counterattack may be in the offing.
It is impossible to determine independently whether the tribesmen truly support the Gadhafi military, as the government repeatedly insists, or whether they are ready to mount an assault on the mountains.
The rebels dismiss the campaign as little more than propaganda.
"He's focusing on the issues, but there is no response from the street to Gadhafi," said Col. Gomaa Ibrahim of the Nafusa mountains military council. "He might get some response from hypocrites, the revolutionary committees and people who just got out of prison, but he'll never get the million that he's calling for."
Libya, a vast arid country of mostly desert and just 6 million people, has always been a deeply tribal society and Gadhafi's rule of permanent revolution, which disdained ordinary government institutions, often came to rely on the tribes to control the country.
"Tribalism has relevance (in Libya) only as a default mode of governance, given the absence of state institutions for four decades under Gadhafi," explained Alia Brahimi, a research fellow at the London School of Economics focusing on Libya. "Gadhafi's social contract ' distributing oil rents coupled with the perpetuation of deep fear ' relied for the most part on co-opting and manipulating tribal networks and alliances."
In the past week, the government has staged a series of rallies in towns near the mountains featuring thousands of cheering supporters, many holding the banners identifying themselves as part of tribes such as the million-strong Warfala.
Gadhafi himself is part of the small Gadhdhafa tribe based in Sirte in the center of the country.
In Zawiya, a town once held by rebels, Gadhafi started his speech Saturday with a nod to each of the tribes represented there before urging them to march on the mountains.
Just in the past two days, Libyan mobile phones have been deluged by text messages announcing the readiness of various tribes to attack the mountains ' even though text messaging service is normally disabled in the country.
"The tribes of Ghariba region will march in the millions to cleanse the western mountains," said one text.
"The tribes of Gharyan, Asaba and Qawalish announce their support for the popular march to liberate the cities villages and countryside of the western mountains," said another, referring to towns on the edge of the mountains outside rebel control.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim has repeatedly dismissed the rebel advances and said the government has now distributed some 1.2 million weapons to the tribes.
"The power of the regime in Libya, the power of this dictatorship in Libya, is not the army, like it or hate it, it's the tribes. Get the lesson," he said, singling out the support of the Warfala in particular.
While there have been some defections from the western tribes, for the most part they appear to be remaining loyal to the government.
"We are not an isolated regime when we give out 1.2 million weapons, rifles, to our people," Ibrahim said. "An isolated, terrified regime would keep the guns only in the hands of the few faithful."
It was not always this way. When Gadhafi came to power in a 1969 coup, he was a follower of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his ideas of Arab Nationalism and socialism and so tried to suppress tribalism.
"He thought it was a force for backwardness," said Brahimi, the researcher, though within in a few years he had to turn back to the tribes to bolster his rule.
Gadhafi's heavy emphasis on tribalism is even more stark compared with how the rebels have attempted to go in the opposite direction.
In the early days of the rebellion in the east after government troops were driven out, the rebels immediately raised the slogan of "no to tribalism" in a direct rejection of Gadhafi's policies.
"The uprising in February sought self-consciously to transcend the de facto structures which emerged during Gadhafi's rule," noted Brahimi. "Importantly, Gadhafi himself is still reliant upon those structures."
Associated Press writer Ben Hubbard in Cairo contributed to this report.