TRIPOLI, Libya â€” When they finally had overrun Moammar Gadhafiâ€™s vast fortress and crushed the illusion that he still ruled them, euphoric rebels hunted down symbols of the power Libyaâ€™s leader had held over nearly every aspect of their lives.
They torched the Bedouin tent where Gadhafi famously met with dignitaries and journalists. They drove around in one of the golf carts in which he navigated the compound. They mocked him by trying on a cheap plastic military hat that he might have worn in photos and on television.
Rebel fighters converging on Tripoli from several directions burst Tuesday into the Bab Azizia compound, where Gadhafi had once lived and ruled. Neither he nor his most high-profile son was there, but the triumph at Bab Azizia all but marked the end of the aging leaderâ€™s nearly 42 years in power.
The fast-moving rebel takeover plunged Tripoli into chaos, with celebratory fire from automatic weapons and even antiaircraft weaponry lighting up the sky late into the night. At midnight, crowds still were gathered in the capitalâ€™s Martyrsâ€™ Square, renamed since the rebels captured it Sunday.
Drivers leaned on their horns and the cityâ€™s mosques echoed with calls in praise of God. The red, black and green rebel flag flew over Bab Azizia, which President Ronald Reagan bombed in 1986.
â€œThere is no fear anymore,â€ said Khaled Azwam, a man in his 30s, who sat in his car with his wife and two sleeping children. They were waiting for things to quiet down so they could return home safely. â€œGadhafi is almost gone.â€
The heavy fighting in recent days has taken a toll on the cityâ€™s civilians. Dr. Fathi Arabi, an orthopedist at Tripoliâ€™s Central Hospital, reported between 50 and 100 dead and hundreds wounded at his facility alone by Tuesday afternoon.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose campaign of airstrikes has greatly aided the rebels, reported continued heavy resistance from Gadhafi loyalists in a long stretch of the Mediterranean coast. They said Gadhafiâ€™s forces had fired another Scud missile late Monday toward rebel forces, but it did not appear to cause any casualties. Along the front line in eastern Libya, NATO said its forces destroyed two rocket launchers that were firing into rebel-held territory.
The explosion of people power showed Libyansâ€™ rage at a regime that made them subject to Gadhafiâ€™s whim. But it also exposed challenges for the Transitional National Council, the rebel authority in the eastern city of Benghazi, and Western officials who conducted a bombing campaign that greatly assisted the rebel cause.
Evidence of lawlessness was pervasive. Young men armed with assault rifles manned checkpoints â€” part of a whole class of newly armed men who may not be willing to hand their weapons over to the authorities.
Although the rebels apparently defeated Gadhafi, many wonder whether they will be able to provide security despite rebel leadersâ€™ blithe assurances that fighters have been trained to protect facilities.
Libyaâ€™s future leaders must quickly decide what to do with the rebel fighters and the regular armed forces.
Many of the best Libyan fighters are from the Nafusa Mountains in the west, and they are largely Berber. Their recent advances appeared to have made the decisive difference in the nearly six-month conflict. They probably will demand a greater say in the future of Libya, including language rights that may rankle the countryâ€™s Arab majority.
It remains unclear how many Libyans genuinely supported Gadhafi. â€œYouâ€™re not welcome here,â€ one man said as he glared at a pair of Western journalists, yelling an obscenity.
Although many of the rebels complain that Gadhafi squandered and stole the countryâ€™s vast oil wealth, oil production ground to a halt during the conflict, and the national economy with it. U.S. and European countries said Tuesday that they were preparing to remove a freeze on billions of dollars in Libyan assets to help rebel authorities restart the economy.