Rebels seeking to quell the last redoubts of Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalists have zeroed in on two cities, one his coastal birthplace and the other deep in Libya’s oil-producing desert, that he has turned into a shrine to his cultish strongman rule.
Bristling with Gaddafi props like a huge marble-lined hall where he hosted diplomatic summits and billboards trumpeting his “state of the masses”, Sirte and Sabha loomed as the last pockets of resistance to the Brother Leader’s ouster.
After overrunning the capital Tripoli in lightning fashion earlier this week, rebels moved in on Sabha 600 km (400 miles) to the south and Sirte 450 km (280 miles) to the east in a two-pronged pincer attack, triggering heavy fighting on Thursday.
Even if both fall to the insurgents soon, vast expanses of Libya’s interior desert will remain outside rebel control, areas where tribes either pro-Gaddafi or historically hostile to central government have long held sway.
Still, rebel takeovers of Sirte and Sabha would deal a symbolically resonant coup de grace to the 42-year Gaddafi era.
That’s because Sirte evoked his pretensions to revolutionary world statesmanship and Sabha his maverick “Brother Leader” mode of rule and the huge oil bounty that underpinned it.
Anchoring the Fezzan region in Libya’s vast stony desert, Sabha features faded hoardings of Gaddafi in a tent, charting Libya’s transformation into a Great Socialist Popular Arab Jamihiriyah that he proclaimed from the city in 1977.
Rising above a sprawling, gritty jumble of squat houses and half-finished construction projects is a fort built by former colonial power Italy that became a monument to Gaddafi’s writ. The fort, turned into a key military base by Gaddafi, appeared to remain in the hands of loyalist troops his week.
The fort graces the reverse of Libya’s 10-dinar banknote.As a child under the monarchy he overthrew in a 1969 coup, Gaddafi was expelled from a school in Sabha.
A one-room cabin called Dar Muammar where he lived at the time is now enclosed by a green fence in the middle of a small traffic circle. Just west of the city of 250,000 is a fertile enclave called the Wadi al Hayat — Valley of Life — containing some of Libya’s most notable oil and water reserves. More than 15 percent of Libya’s pre-conflict oil output was churned out here by Spain’s Repsol energy concern.