NALUT, Libya â€” Graffiti on a wall in the center of Nalut has a message for Moammar Gadhafi: â€œLet us be free.â€
But the streets of this largely Berber mountain city of western Libya are nearly empty, except for a few passing pickups mounted with guns and loaded with steely-eyed fighters.
Children, mothers and grandparents have all fled to Tunisia to escape the batteries of missiles launched from the valley below by military forces loyal to the longtime Libyan strongman. An ambitious operation two weekends ago to fight back ended in failure, with 15 rebel fighters killed, dozens injured and not an inch of territory gained.
Though much of the focus on the rebellion against Gadhafi has centered on Tripoli and the large rebel-held cities of Benghazi and Misrata, the uprising is also playing out in rugged mountain communities in the west, near the Tunisian border, where Libyaâ€™s long-oppressed Berber minority sees its own chance to shake off his four-decade rule.
The fighters here, who are increasingly in contact with rebels in Benghazi and elsewhere, also view it as an opportunity to help stretch Gadhafiâ€™s forces thin. The more troops that are tied down in the west, the fewer that are available to control Tripoli or launch attacks on other rebel-held areas, primarily in eastern Libya.
Gadhafiâ€™s forces, meanwhile, see Nalut as strategically important for cutting off supply lines from Tunisia to the rest of the rebel-controlled mountains. As in larger cities elsewhere, Gadhafiâ€™s men have launched ferocious attacks on residential areas here, with mixed success, in an attempt to maintain or win back control.
In smaller cities such as Jadu, 75 miles east of Nalut and with less strategic importance, rebel forces have proved successful. Hundreds of colorfully dressed, laughing children filled the streets several hours after weekly prayers Friday afternoon, holding the pre-Gadhafi Libyan flag, and singing pro-democratic songs in Arabic and Amazigh, the Berber tongue. Dozens of men gathered at a cafe and chatted over cups of coffee as women crowded around a vendor selling fresh apples and cantaloupes from the back of a truck.
Yet in other parts of this remote stretch of cities high up in the Nafusa Mountains, the rebels have overreached and been beaten back, much as they had been in parts of eastern Libya before a NATO air campaign began to protect civilians from Gadhafiâ€™s forces.
The divergent fates of Nalut and Jadu illustrate the opportunities and fragility of the four-month uprising to oust Gadhafi. Here, the topography that makes the sparsely populated territory relatively easy to defend also makes it difficult to supply and vulnerable to siege.
Government rocket fire could be seen Friday night in the skies over Nalut, where inadequately prepared rebels were defeated the week before.
â€œWe asked them to wait (rather than attack),â€ said Abdullah Funas, a former diplomat, who serves on the rebel leadership committee of Jadu, a city of 9,000. â€œOur commander called them and asked them to wait. This was a big mistake on their part.â€
Some mountain towns have had it even worse than Nalut, which, with 18,000 residents, is one of the largest communities near the Tunisian border. Wazin, a border town, is now empty save for a few guards protecting peoplesâ€™ homes from looters. It was the scene of ferocious fighting between Gadhafi loyalists and rebel fighters battling for control of the border crossing, the second most important gateway between Libya and Tunisia. Though the rebels won the fight, their city remains a ghost town.
Gadhafiâ€™s men have for months been tormenting Nalut â€” which serves as a staging ground for protecting the Tunisian border crossing â€” sneaking into canyon crevices along the foothills and firing batteries of Grad rockets from lowlands to the north.
Rebel officials acknowledge that the fear of NATO airstrikes keeps Gadhafiâ€™s men from moving even more aggressively toward the rebel-controlled mountains.
â€œTheyâ€™ve been hitting Nalut almost every day,â€ said Funas, who defected to the opposition in the Nafusa Mountains after the uprising began. â€œGadhafi wants no one left in that city.â€
Gadhafiâ€™s forces have prevented residents from tending to their fields and have killed off their livestock on farms at the foot of the mountains, denying them access to food save for expensive, less nutritious imports from Tunisia. Gadhafi has also stopped gasoline supplies and cut off the cityâ€™s utilities.
â€œThereâ€™s no electricity and thereâ€™s no water,â€ said Mohammad Naluti, 21, a university student who volunteers as a liaison between the cityâ€™s military and media committees. â€œWho would want to live here?â€
Desperate, inexperienced and overconfident, the cityâ€™s fighters ignored warnings from the other towns in the western mountains to launch their three-day attack that ended with heavy losses. Things might have been worse if it werenâ€™t for NATO warplanes last Tuesday bombing Gadhafiâ€™s Grad missile positions and weapons storage facilities, rebel spokespersons acknowledged.
The ill-fated operation might have been prompted more by emotion than strategy, said one observer, alerting Gadhafi loyalists both to tactical vulnerabilities and weakened morale. â€œThe guys miss their families and miss their children,â€ said Wissam Jurnaz, a 32-year-old engineer volunteering with Nalutâ€™s provisional government. â€œThey think they can do it by themselves. They donâ€™t think they have a choice.â€
There are signs that fractured rebel leadership in the various high-desert towns and cities are beginning to recognize the need for a more professional approach. Over the last week, representatives agreed to begin more closely coordinating their offensive and defensive operations.
â€œThey decided to make one fight at a time,â€ said Khaled Zaibi, an accounting instructor at the Eagle of Africa University in Nalut who volunteers at the cityâ€™s media center.
Rebels are also seeking to use Gadhafiâ€™s abandoned assets to their advantage. His military bases in the region have been converted into training facilities.
His many tanks, apparently well maintained, have been placed in key defensive positions along roadways. Tractor trailers stand ready to be moved in place to block any armored push by Gadhafiâ€™s forces with earthen berms prepared nearby for staging ambushes.
Young male recruits are streaming in, some having returned from abroad and others among the recently displaced from cities under Gadhafiâ€™s control. They are trained for a few weeks and then deployed.
During the Friday afternoon march in Jadu, a verdant mountain city graced with groves of trees, dozens of recent recruits poured into the city square, giving the crowd a fresh shot of energy.
â€œWeâ€™ll never give up! Weâ€™ll never give up!â€™ they chanted, to wild applause. â€œGadhafiâ€™s regime is collapsing.â€
Mahmoud Mansouri, 28, was a doctor educated in Tripoliâ€™s Fatah University, before he fled with his family to Tunisia two months ago. He came to Jadu last and volunteered to fight against Gadhafi.
â€œI am here to liberate my city,â€ he said. â€œI worked as a doctor for two years. Now I leave medicine to learn how to fight war. Because this is the language Gadhafi understands.â€