Image: Libyan supporters of Moammar Gadhafi demonstrate outside a Tripoli, Libya, hotel where most of the foreign media representative are staying
Pier Paolo Cito  /  AP
Libyan supporters of Moammar Gadhafi demonstrate Thursday outside a Tripoli, Libya, hotel where most of the foreign media representative are staying.
By
updated 3/31/2011 7:08:11 PM ET 2011-03-31T23:08:11

The biggest danger to Moammar Gadhafi is not the rebel forces struggling to march on his capital. It's more likely to be the crumbling of the remaining, fragile support for his regime.

That is what makes the defection of Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa a heavy blow. He was part of a small circle of key insiders and family who have the most to lose if Gadhafi loses power. As those figures peel away, it makes the majority of his supporters, who have much looser ties, less certain that Gadhafi is capable of staying in power.

The Libyan leader relies most on his immediate family and his tribe, the Gadhadhfa. But his tribe is a relatively small one among the estimated 140 tribes that predominate life in the North African nation of about 6 million. So he vitally needs the support of others, whose allegiance he has bought over the years by handing their members top political and security posts.

Their loyalty is already fraying. International airstrikes hitting Gadhafi's forces — where these tribes make up much of the manpower — are designed in part to convince them that Gadhafi has to go.

Gadhafi's most important alliances have been with the Warfalla and Magarha tribes, thought to be among the biggest in the country, with some estimates of around 1 million members each. One of his right-hand men, military intelligence chief Abdullah Senoussi, is a Magarha (he's also Gadhafi's brother-in-law). Members of both tribes have filled the upper ranks of the security forces and government.

Warfalla and Magarha also largely fill out the militias led by Gadhafi's sons, Khamis, Muatassim and al-Saadi. The regime has relied on those forces to battle the rebels and besiege opposition-held cities because the Libyan leader feels assured of their loyalty. That means they have been main targets of the air campaign and are bearing the brunt of the punishment.

Some leaders in both tribes have announced their support for the anti-Gadhafi uprising since it erupted on Feb. 15, and numerous individual Warfalla and Magarha have joined the revolt, either as fighters or politicians. Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the opposition's eastern-based leadership council, is a Warfalla.

Suppressing dissent
The rest in these tribes and others have remained with Gadhafi for the moment, whether out of fear of reprisals or because they hope to hold onto the perks and salaries the positions and military jobs provide them.

Recently, Warfalla figures within the regime — like infrastructure minister Maatouq Maatouq — have been sent to berate their fellow tribesmen to stay in line, said Faraj Najem, a Libyan historian and expert on tribes.

"They have made it clear to their tribe that anyone who speaks against the regime will be in trouble — that is, physically liquidated. So they have managed to suppress much Warfalla dissent," said Najem, who is based in London and is in touch with figures on the ground in Libya.

The allied tribes "can switch at any moment depending on the circumstances," Najem said. "There will be a moment when they will let Gadhafi down, either by turning against him or just stepping aside" and remaining neutral.

Since U.S. and European-led airstrikes on Libya began on March 19, Western officials have stepped up calls for Gadhafi loyalists to turn against him. "We call on all his supporters to drop him before it is too late," French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a joint statement Monday.

"Those who abandon Gadhafi in his crazy and murderous ways can join in the reconstruction of a new, democratic Libya," Sarkozy said.

The extent of sincere popular support for Gadhafi is hard to measure, given the overwhelming propaganda campaign his government has waged to show he remains beloved by the masses. Libyan state TV frequently shows "tribal gatherings" boasting of various tribes' backing for the man who has ruled for nearly 42 years.

Tripoli's Green Square is filled daily with partying loyalists honking their horns, waving green flags and toting posters of their leader. Music blares from loudspeakers and green flags flutter from the lampposts.

"Gadhafi brought us the wealth and freedom and happiness we are in," one man in the square shouted on a recent day.

In Gadhafi's private Tripoli compound, Bab al-Aziziya, dozens of Libyans that the government calls "voluntary human shields" mass each day, though their numbers have thinned out considerably since the allied airstrikes started. On Thursday night, they partied in the compound, waving flags and beating drums.

Many in the crowd were from Tripoli's Bu Sleim district, a pro-Gadhafi stronghold whose support for the leader has helped keep protests from spreading in the capital. "We are all here the sons of Bu Selim," shouted Mohammad Mansour over the loud pro-Gadhafi music. "We are all ready to defend the leader with our lives."

Najem, the historian, says there are three rings of support around Gadhafi. The closest are his sons and the senior insiders who have benefited most from his rule, who come from a variety of tribal backgrounds.

The second is the Gadhadhfa tribe itself, based in the central coastal city of Sirte with a significant presence as well in Sebha, a Gadhafi stronghold deep in Libya's southwestern desert. Over the past two decades, Gadhafi has increasingly planted Gadhadhfa members in key posts, particularly in the air forces.

These are the circles that will likely fight the longest for Gadhafi, Najem told The Associated Press, because they see their fates as tied to him personally.

Symbols of decline
The defection of Koussa, who was previously an intelligence chief, was just one sign that those power centers are crumbling. Weeks ago, the Libyan leader's cousin and close adviser, Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, abandoned the regime and fled to Egypt.

A major militia commander in the southeastern desert town of Kufra also defected, said an opposition spokesman, Mustafa Gheriani. Saleh al-Zewi commanded the Kufra contingent of the Khamis Brigades, named for the Gadhafi son who leads it, Gheriani said.

The Zweia tribe, to which al-Zewi belongs, has already announced its support for the uprising. It dominates a vast swath of eastern Libya, from the Mediterranean coast to the southeastern borders — where many of Libya's oil fields are located.

The weaker the inner circle seems, the safer Gadhafi's third circle of support, the allied tribes, may feel in breaking away definitively.

But intimidation — and uncertainty over who will win the conflict — can have a powerful hold on those tribes.

In Sirte, for example, the Gadhadhfa tribe dominates the city, but in fact it is outnumbered by another, rival tribe, the Firjan.

As rebel forces from the east marched on Sirte last weekend, opposition figures were in contact with the Firjan within the city urging them to rise up. Many Firjan already have, particularly their large populations in the opposition-held cities of Benghazi and Ajdabiya.

Among the opposition supporters trying to convince their brethren in Sirte to help them is Col. Khalifa Hafter, an influential Firjani who, as a commander in Gadhafi's forces, led the army in an offensive in neighboring Chad in the 1990s. Hafter is also the brother of the chief of the Firjan community in the rebel capital of Benghazi, Najem said.

Still, with the militia led by al-Saadi Gadhafi hunkered down in Sirte, the Firjan in the city did not rise up. A powerful offensive by Gadhafi troops drove the rebels back from Sirte and sent them retreating more than 100 miles over the past four days.

The attitude among many of the tribes that continue to at least nominally support Gadhafi appears to be to wait and see which direction the conflict turns.

That applies just as much to the Libyan leader's own Gadhadhfa brethren.

Najem said he had been told by residents in Sebha, Gadhafi's southwestern stronghold, that some Gadhadhfa there have been buying up gold and making contingency plans to flee south across the border to Chad. The tribe is a minority in Sebha, and its prominence has fueled rivalries with local Magarha and members of another powerful tribe, the Hasawna.

"They know that without Gadhafi," Najem said, "the state won't give them cover any more."

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

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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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  1. Image: A photo said to show people gathering during recent days' unrest in Benghazi, Libya. The content, date and location of the image could not be independently verified.
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    Above: Slideshow (81) Conflict in Libya
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    Slideshow (34) Moammar Gadhafi through the years

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