Image: Rebel recruits at training
Kevin Frayer  /  AP
Libyan rebel recruits stand in formation during a training session in Benghazi on March 1.
By
updated 3/30/2011 7:20:21 PM ET 2011-03-30T23:20:21

The hundreds of men who come daily to this town's seized army base for lessons in shooting rifles, loading rocket launchers and firing artillery shells agree on at least two things: Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi must go and arms are the only way to get him out.

Beyond that, their visions of Libya should Gadhafi's 42-year reign end differ widely. Some want democracy. Others want a share of Libya's oil wealth. Still others, albeit a minority, see Libya's liberation as the first step toward establishing a regional Islamic state. That's bound to scare the international coalition bombing Gadhafi's forces.

The United States has already reached out to the opposition's political leadership. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with members of the Interim National Council on Tuesday in London.

The former U.S. Ambassador to Tripoli, Chris Stevens, is due to visit Benghazi soon, and President Barack Obama has not ruled out the possibility of arming rebel forces.

The interim council — largely stocked with foreign-educated, Westernized Libyans — insists it seeks a liberal democracy based on a constitution and with regular elections.

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But interviews with over a dozen men receiving weapons training at a former Benghazi military camp provide a window into the diverse motivations pulling rebel ground troops into battle.

A few hundred show up daily at this base on the city's western edge, which rebels seized at the start of the uprising in mid-February and promptly renamed "The Martyrs' Brigade."

Training is run by a group of retired army officers, most in their 50s, who seek to provide bakers, bureaucrats, university students and taxi drivers with basic weapons know-how.

On a recent day, a toothless soldier showed one group how to aim a Kalashnikov, while another helped a father-son team assemble the barrel of an anti-aircraft gun.

All detailed reasons to hate Gadhafi's regime.

Ashraf Mohammed, a government bureaucrat, said he'd seen too many people abused by Gadhafi's rule. His brother was detained for seven months for being seen with the wrong people, he said. A neighbor spent seven years in prison, and a colleague did 17 before being released with no explanation, he said.

"All the accusations were political," said Mohammed, 31. "Any accusation that you are against the regime and it's over."

Next he explained which buttons to push to fire a rocket launcher in what he considers a fight for freedom.

"The goal is democracy, a constitution and transfer of power," he said. "Not just one ruling family."

University student Abdel-Salam Rigayi, 23, took advantage of a vacation — imposed by the fighting — to pursue a different dream.

"We want a society based on the Quran," he said, speaking in the formal Arabic tones of a mosque preacher.

"Freedom of religion, we don't want it," he said. "We want the freedom to practice our religion, but we don't want freedom for Jews and Christians and to have naked women and alcohol."

His friend, Mahdi Abu Bakir, 35, wore a bushy beard and a long white robe.

"We want to get rid of that evil thief," he said, meaning Gadhafi, "then unite the Arabs under the motto, There is no God but Allah" — the Muslim declaration of faith.

The camp's trainers insisted the program was going well, though they acknowledge the inferiority of their arms — mostly munitions seized from long-neglected army bases or retreating regime forces.

"We lack weapons, while Gadhafi's troops have modern, strong weapons," said Fawzi Abdullah Moussa, who retired from the Libyan army in 1998 after a 30-year career. "But we have determination and belief to push us forward."

The camp reflects the disorganization among rebel forces. Anyone who enters gets training without any physical, medical or ideological screening. No one checks their identities, and few names are recorded.

Trainers said they sent fighters to the front, but all gave different answers on when the last group left and how large it was. No one could explain how they communicate with the front in a facility with no electricity and no radios. They even disagreed on whether an "operations room" exists to coordinate the fight.

Some worry extremists will exploit the chaos.

NATO's top commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, told Congress Tuesday that officials had seen "flickers" of possible al-Qaida and Hezbollah involvement with rebel forces. But he said there was no evidence of significant numbers within the opposition leadership.

Spokesman Mustafa Gheriani of the opposition council in Benghazi said that any extremists among the fighters are exceptions and that ensuring democracy is the only way to combat them.

"Once you have a democracy and a constitution, there is nothing for the West to fear," he said. "Democracy generally puts down all of these extremist elements. Our best bet is a democracy."

But the council has no control over who is picking up guns to join the fight.

While some at the training camp talked of the importance of Arab unity or the role of Islam in their society, none mentioned al-Qaida or any other terror or militant group. Most focused merely on hatred of Gadhafi.

On an oil-stained blanket, Karim Mahmoud, 48, and his 15-year old son struggled to assemble an anti-aircraft gun. Another son, 11, watched closely.

Mahmoud, a baker, said Gadhafi's brutality pushed him — despite diabetes, high blood pressure and heart troubles — to seek arms with his sons.

"We lived under oppression for a long time, but we put up with it," he said. "But when the regime killed our friends and brothers, we had to join the defense. The regime forced us to fight against it."

A handful of others obviously under 18 were scattered among the hundreds of trainees. One trainer even pointed out his 10-year-old son sitting among a group being taught to use a rifle.

Mahmoud dismissed concerns that his sons were too young to fight.

"I'm ready to send them tomorrow to defend the nation," he said. "If they die, it will be in the path of God and I'll see them in heaven."

His son, Abdel-Rahman, 15, didn't look like a fighter in a black baseball cap and a fake leather jacket, with a downy mustache just emerging on his lip. He claimed otherwise.

"I hope to go and die a martyr," he said. "I'm not too young."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Morale sinks as Libyan rebels lose ground

  1. Closed captioning of: Morale sinks as Libyan rebels lose ground

    >>> good evening. right about now during these past few days across our country, people are watching this unfolding situation in libya . the rebels versus gadhafi . americans have heard president obama defending the u.s. air campaign he ordered, sending our service members to fight a third concurrent conflict far from home . in our conversation with the president yesterday, he wouldn't rule out or in giving american weapons to these rebels . and now you're going to get to see the rebels we're talking about, the side the u.s. is supporting in this war. we're going to begin tonight with nbc news chief foreign correspondent richard engel in benghazi, who spent the day with rebel forces on the ground in libya . richard , good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. gadhafi 's forces are continuing an offensive, driving back the rebels . gadhafi 's troops are also changing tactics, using fewer tanks and more civilian cars to avoid being attacked from the air. the toll is clear on the front line . the rebels seem dejected, many appear confused, somber. no sign of the spirit that brought them just days ago to within striking distance of gadhafi 's hometown, which now seems far away . the rebels have no communications, no commanders, but they do have weapons. artillery, mortars, even surface-to-surface rockets. but no idea how to use them. and their enemy is outthinking them. the terrain has now become a decisive factor in this war, which gadhafi 's forces are using to their advantage. the rebels stay mostly on or near the main tarmaced roads. gadhafi 's forces now in that direction are also on the roads, and they're engaging the rebels , but simultaneously, gadhafi 's troops are also going out in small teams with mortars in jeeps through the open desert to flank around the rebels and catch them in a cross-fire. until now, it's been easy for western pilots to identify and destroy government tanks. but now that gadhafi is using jeeps that look just like the rebels ' vehicles, air support is much harder. on a mission to protect civilians, it's become difficult to know who to bomb. but the rebels do have one invaluable asset, heart. on the front line , we met 25-year-old adnano. from misrata, he was studying in canada, but dropped out of school to come here and fight. he bought his own gun. he doesn't know how to load it. he slept in a car for a week, living on stale bread and tuna fish . he was almost killed today by a rocket attack.

    >> are you okay?

    >> new york ci

    >> no, i'm okay. i don't want about the rockets. i don't care about the rockets. i want to die if i can. it's honor to us, it's freedom. we want freedom.

    >> reporter: to boost their morale, a few rebels gather in a circle to cheer and fire in the air. but they're losing ground fast and have little to celebrate. we saw two things today, brian, that were revealing about the rebels and also terrifying. in one case, the rebels were trying to fire a mortar, but they didn't secure the mortar to the ground, so it fired wildly off to the side. the other case, they, and i'm not making this up, they fired a rocket in the wrong direction, not toward gadhafi forces but backwards into a civilian city.

    >> and so, richard , while things don't look exactly rosy for gadhafi and his own foreign minister defected today to the brits, never a good sign, this does interfere with the story line that at least watching in this country was the rebel progress, all those graphics and maps showing their march westward. now it looks like they're going eastward most of the time.

    >> reporter: they are coming eastward and they are moving very quickly. gadhafi 's forces are now just about an hour and a half drive from here. they were all the way pushed back to sirte. the rebels ' advance has now almost been entirely erased.

    >> all right. richard engel in benghazi in libya tonight. richard , thanks.

Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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