Arm chair generals watching Libya from afar ask: why are the rebels dragging their feet in attacking Sirte?
The birthplace of Moammar Gadhafi, this Mediterranean seaport is the last holdout of Gadhafi loyalists on the coast between Tunisia and Egypt.
Gadhafi lavished public works spending on his hometown, building an assembly hall where he proposed that Sirte serve as administrative capital for a “United States of Africa.”
Last week, after losing control of Tripoli, Gadhafi proclaimed Sirte to be the capital of his Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.
Rebel columns now surround Sirte. But they have given city and military authorities 10 days to negotiate a surrender of the city. The deadline is now Sept. 10.
Friday afternoon, I got an insight into the reasons for rebels’
patience. I hunted down the Tripoli War Cemetery, a little visited reminder of World War II that lies largely forgotten behind apartment blocks in Tripoli’s Mansour district.
I went there because my father, John L.B. “Jack” Brooke, drove an ambulance during the North African campaign, essentially from Cairo to Tunis, passing through El Alamein, Tobruk and Benghazi. A volunteer for the American Field Service, he was attached to the British 8th Army.
Most of Commonwealth soldiers buried in the cemetery came from military hospitals set up in Tripoli after it was liberated from German-Italian forces by the 8th Army on Jan. 23, 1943. Undoubtedly, some of the men buried here passed through the back of my father’s ambulance.
The cemetery is well maintained, with drought resistant dull green grass that crunches underfoot. Date palms provide islands of shade in a sea of 1,369 tombstones — row upon row of sun-baked stones, honoring young men from Britain, Sudan, India, and South Africa.
One British headstone, probably carved in the late 1940s, memorializes a 19-year-old man who “will be forever cherished by his grandmother, mother and father, and brothers and sisters.”
Another, picked at random, reads: “Treasured memories of Bill. Loving husband of Peggy. Darling Daddy of Norma. We shall meet again.”
To ponder these rows of stones is to glimpse lives cut short, weddings canceled, children never conceived, children who never knew their fathers.
This year, Libya has lost an estimated 50,000 men in its six month revolt. That is a staggering amount in a sparsely populated desert nation of only 6.4 million people.
Libya’s uprising was a bloody, city by city revolution — not an urban riot over high bread prices, not a surgical military coup.
To the west, Tunisia, with twice Libya’s population, lost only 224 lives in its January revolution.
To the east, Egypt, with 10 times Libya’s population, lost only 846 in its February revolution.
In American terms, Libya’s fatalities would be the equivalent of 2.4 million lives lost in six months.
Yes, the rebel forces massed around Sirte can physically crush this last major stronghold of “Gadhafis.”
But no, rebel leaders do not want more lives lost in Libya’s costly civil war.