TRIPOLI, Libya — Refat, 26, was happily working in the information technology department of a British retailer here until just a few months ago when he was called to military service by the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Now Refat, who was not fully identified because of the fear of retribution from Libyan security forces, is patrolling the rebellious neighborhood of Souq al-Juma wearing a mismatched uniform, riding in a small white government car and worried for his life each night because of the growing number of rebel attacks within the capital on soldiers like him.
Just last Thursday, he said, four armed rebels ambushed a group of his fellow soldiers at a checkpoint, killing another amateur soldier named Walid, a 20-year-old student, and leaving another in the hospital.
“We are afraid,” Refat said. “We are standing under the light and they come from the darkness.”
Novice soldiers like Refat, whose account provided the first confirmation of widespread rebel reports of their nocturnal guerrilla attacks, appear to be an increasingly important part of the Qaddafi government’s defense against potential insurrection in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. The professional soldiers of the Qaddafi militias who once cruised the streets of neighborhoods like Souq al-Juma in their white Toyota pickup trucks, he said, have all been called away to fight on the front lines near Misurata, the Nafusa Mountains or the eastern oil city of Brega.
As anxiety hung over the capital Friday on the four-month anniversary of the start of the Libyan uprising, Refat was patrolling the streets with another amateur soldier, a petroleum engineer in civilian life, under the supervision of an older, nonuniformed leader who made his living as a teacher.
“No one has a gun or a Kalashnikov,” Refat said, to prove the degree of calm in the neighborhood as he gave a tour to a pair of foreign journalists picked up for roaming the city without an official minder.
With rumors of a planned rebel attack or demonstration, though, security was tight. Foreign journalists were almost completely barred from leaving their hotel until after 4:30 p.m., and two who did slip out briefly in the morning reported seeing truckloads of riot police officers. To counter any potential opposition, the government organized a rally by thousands of Qaddafi supporters for much of the day in the city’s central Green Square — the largest such demonstration here in several weeks.
Loudspeakers and state television broadcast a defiant recorded message from Colonel Qaddafi. “NATO will be defeated,” he predicted, calling the rebels challenging his rule “sons of dogs.” (On Thursday, he delivered a radio address in the city of Bani Walid, urging residents to march together against the rebels based in Misurata.)
A few hours earlier, NATO jets had again buzzed the city and dropped bombs in broad daylight, increasing the tension. One large explosion south of the city sent a thick cloud of black smoke snaking over the skyline.
About 100 miles to the east, Qaddafi forces remained locked in battle with rebels attempting to advance from Misurata toward the barracks town of Zlitan. The Associated Press reported that rebel fighters and a woman living nearby had been killed when the Qaddafi forces fired Grad rockets and artillery at the rebels’ front lines.
In Tripoli, the streets of Souq al-Juma were full of what appeared to be plainclothes police officers and security agents — several ultimately came forward to confer with the soldiers — and some residents said they were afraid to be seen talking to reporters.
For a while, a group of young men smoking shesha pipes under a tree at a roadside cafe whispered of their nightly battles with Qaddafi forces, their gratitude for the NATO bombing and their hopes that rebel fighters would eventually reach the capital. When a reporter mimicked a popular Qaddafi slogan, a young man replied with a stony look, saying, “Don’t say that here! You are in Souq al-Juma!” And he insisted that even beyond the neighborhood, “90 percent” of Tripoli residents want Colonel Qaddafi to go.
Then another group of men pulled up chairs. The first group turned anxious and silent. And then the newcomers explained that all of Souq al-Juma, like all of Tripoli, supported Colonel Qaddafi.
A few blocks away, two young men in plainclothes, who had been sitting by a wall, stood up to introduce themselves as deputy police officers. Then they summoned the soldiers to escort the journalists away.
Touring the neighborhood, Refat noted the hollow shell of the police stations that rebels had burned down during the initial uprising four months ago. And he pointed out where each night the rebels had painted anti-Qaddafi graffiti on the walls of schools, mosques and other buildings, forcing Refat and his fellow soldiers to cover it up with pro-Qaddafi graffiti the next morning. As a civilian, he said, he had been “addicted to the Internet,” and he missed it badly since the Qaddafi government had shut it down (with the exception of the hotel housing foreign journalists) at the start of the uprising. Still, he said, he understood the reasons, “because people were putting up bad things about Libya, like ‘Qaddafi kills people,’ and, on the other side, to cut the communication between these people.”
By nightfall, the rumored rebel attack in the capital had failed to materialize. Some said they still expected local rebels to mark the day with some actions after the final evening prayer, at 10 p.m. But by then, the foreign journalists were sealed in their hotel, its phone lines were down and the Internet was no longer working there either.