Thursday, May 05, 2011

Libyan Traditional Leaders Gather in Capital to Call for End to Western-backed Rebel Insurgency

Gadhafi Stages Event to Show Libyan Tribal Unity


TRIPOLI, Libya—Hundreds of tribal leaders from government-controlled areas of Libya gathered under a giant tent here Thursday to call for an end to an armed uprising against Col. Moammar Gadhafi and aerial attacks by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on his forces.

But what the government billed as a nationwide show of support drew only limited participation, with tribal chiefs from three regions of western and central Libya in attendance.

."We reject the fighting in Libya...we strongly reject foreign intervention," declared Abed Abu Hamada , leader of the Megharbah tribe, in a speech to the televised gathering of white-robed elders. "We call on our brothers in the eastern regions – the armed ones, the misled ones – we call them to peaceful dialogue."

Mr. Abu Hamada was introduced by organizers as a leader from eastern Libya, much of which is under rebel control. In fact, say tribal experts, the Megharbah are from the central Libyan region near the Gulf of Sirte.

The government listed 851 tribes and tribal factions represented at Thursday's National Conference of the Tribes of Libya. George Joffee, a Cambridge University professor who has studied Libya's tribes and who examined the list of participants, said those groups hail exclusively from the central Sirte Valley, the Al-Jufra plains just to the south and the Tawerga region near Misrata, further to the west.

Absent were eastern tribes and western Berber tribes, which have been hostile to the Col. Gadhafi during his four decades of rule, and tribes from the south that have sought to remain neutral in the 11-week-old uprising.

"The regime can rely only on those tribes in the center and the west that are favorable to it or can be coerced," Mr. Joffee said in a telephone interview. Thursday's conference, he added, "was clearly staged by the regime in the hope of creating the impression that Col. Gadhafi enjoys widespread support."

Even among the tribal leaders present, backing for the government was limited.

Mansour Khalaf, who heads Libya's largest tribe, the Warfalla, told reporters during the conference that although he denounces the uprising and supports Col. Gadhafi's leadership, he would not send armed followers to join the Libyan army's fight against the rebels, as some other tribes have vowed to do.

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said the "security situation" in eastern Libya limited attendance at the conference. But he insisted that it was broadly representative and urged Western leaders who have called for Col. Gadhafi's departure to take note.

"Their message is national unity and no to foreign intervention," he said. "They are not siding with someone against someone else. Of course, they're rallying behind the leadership of the country, but they're saying, we want our brothers in the east to come talk to us so we can find a peaceful solution to this crisis."

The tribal leaders met under a tent the size of two football fields, equipped with air conditioning and chandeliers. English and Arabic signs on the white cloth walls read "Stop the War," "Libya First," and "No War for Oil." Nearly every speaker pledged allegiance to Col. Gadhafi.

Western officials have said NATO will keep attacking Col. Gadhafi's forces as long as their strikes on opposition-held areas threaten civilian lives. Rebel leaders have rejected his calls for a cease-fire, saying there's nothing to discuss as long as the Libyan leader remains in power.

A leader of the rebels' Transitional National Council, Fathi Baja, dismissed the government's assertion that the tribal leaders who met Thursday represent the whole country. "Gadhafi is just a big liar," he told the Associated Press in the eastern city of Benghazi. "He never had any legitimacy."

Write to Richard Boudreaux at

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