Video: Libyan opposition leader describes what started his rebellion

Image: Miranda Leitsinger
By Reporter
NBC News
updated 5/10/2011 6:15:44 AM ET 2011-05-10T10:15:44

Basic goods are increasingly scarce in eastern Libya and the opposition government is rapidly running out of cash to fund its battle against Moammar Gadhafi, its Libyan-American finance minister said Monday.

The opposition Interim Transitional National Council (TNC) has been operating off money in the central bank and other private and public banks in rebel-held eastern Libya, said Ali Tarhouni, 60, a senior economics lecturer at the University of Washington before he rushed home to serve the opposition as minister of finance, oil and economics.

"We're running out of that money," he told msnbc.com in an interview in Washington, D.C., confirming a Reuters report that the opposition had three to four weeks of funds left. "No money is coming in from outside so far."

Among the challenges facing Tarhouni, who went into exile in 1974 and was sentenced to death in absentia by Gadhafi for his pro-democracy activities, are money-hoarding and foreign-exchange liquidity.

"We're faced with the same sanctions as Gadhafi," he said, referring to U.S. sanctions that have frozen more than $34 billion of Libyan government assets, in addition to U.N. and European sanctions. "I don't have access to any foreign exchange to cover any purchases, open lines of credits to merchants, so that's a very challenging aspect to what I do."

Video: Funds running short for basic needs (on this page)

Part of the reason for his first U.S. trip since he left in late February to join the fledgling opposition council is to push for the quick unfreezing of some Libyan assets that the opposition has access to. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last weekend that the U.S. is willing to free up some of the funds, possibly $150 million in the short term.

'Time ... is of the essence'
"We need access to these sovereign funds, these frozen assets to finance the purchase of fuel, medicine, food — and it's an urgent matter, can't really wait," Tarhouni said. "… We're in a war, it's a question of speed, it's a question of time; time again is of the essence for this revolution."

Image: Ali Tarhouni
Ben Curtis  /  AP file
Ali Tarhouni, who handles finances for the opposition's National Transitional Council, speaks to the media in Benghazi, Libya on April 1.

The oil fields under the council's control are producing, but only small amounts "that are not going to solve my economic problems," said Tarhouni, who is originally from the eastern city of Benghazi.

"My strategy for the oil sector is very simple: It's steady as she goes," he said, noting he had been in contact with many of the foreign oil companies and that all contracts would be honored — no matter who signed the deals. "I'm not looking at this sector now as a major producer of revenue to help our quest for liberating the rest of Libya."

Finding sources of income is "really the challenging aspect of what I am doing," he said. "Running an economy even during regular time is a challenging or tough assignment, but running it during a war with limited resources is that much more challenging."

Last week in Rome, the Libya Contact Group — 22 countries and organizations, including the U.S. — decided to create a fund that the rebels can use to provide for basic needs, The Associated Press reported. Nations have already pledged $250 million in humanitarian aid, Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

But humanitarian aid won't enable the opposition forces to gain the upper hand on the battlefield, since it can't be used to buy modern weaponry, Tarhouni said.

But the opposition leadership draws encouragement from the fact that Gadhafi's financial woes are almost as bad as theirs.

"It's very hard to make a case for his survival," said Tarhouni. "Here is a dictator who basically lost legitimacy globally, in the Arab world, the Islamic world, domestically. He is encircled. He can't really get access to any of money, at least in amounts that solve his problems. He can't get the armament that he wants … so basically he is getting squeezed. How could he survive; how could he last long? It's just a question of time."

Underestimating Gadhafi's strength
But Tarhouni, who holds a doctorate in economics and finance from Michigan State University, acknowledges that some members of the opposition thought Gadhafi would have been kicked out of the country sooner.

Image: Map of Libya

"We definitely underestimated his military strength and we also underestimated his ability to survive," he said. "The gamble was that all of the other cities would join in, and this didn't happen as fast, and he had a little bit of time to get himself ready."

The conflict has raged across Libya since mid-February. After a series of rebellions swept through numerous cities, Gadhafi's forces mounted a counterattack, allegedly using cluster bombs and anti-aircraft weapons against civilians. In mid-March, Gadhafi made a strong push across the country's east, until the U.N. Security Council approved a no-fly zone to protect civilians — and NATO stepped in to enforce it.

"He showed his face that for him to survive, for him to stay in power, there are really no limits," Tarhouni said, adding that he believed Gadhafi had been committing crimes against humanity during his 42 years in power.

Tarhouni, who said he clashed ideologically with Gadhafi while a member of a pro-democracy student union in Libya, left the country in 1974. He said his name was put on a hit list in the 1980s and that at least 20 people on that list were killed in Europe.

Video: Libyan opposition leader describes what started his rebellion (on this page)

He also said that Gadhafi reached out to him at various times in apparent bids for reconciliation.

"Throughout the years, he sent different emissaries to me and to other opposition members, but I refused to talk to him," Tarhouni said. "I always thought they are illegitimate thugs who basically took a peaceful country and changed it to a cesspool for no reason whatsoever — and I took that personal.”

After moving to the U.S. and lining up a teaching position, he said he had started to lose hope that a revolt would take place. But once it happened, he said he knew exactly what he had to do.

'The best decision I've ever made'
"I didn't hesitate, and I think that's the best decision that I ever made," he said, noting he had the support of his wife and four children — three sons and a daughter ranging in ages from 16 to 28. "I'm doing exactly what I want to do, what I dreamed of doing."

Despite the seemingly obvious risks, he said he wasn't taking any.

"I think the thousands of people who died are the ones who took the real risk," he said, adding that back home in Seattle the hardest decisions were deciding what to have for lunch or which highway to take. "It's amazing how we change over a short period of time."

He raised the risk-taking to another level when he hopped on a small fishing boat and made the perilous journey to the besieged city of Misrata, which lies on a road linking the key oil town of Sirte — the base of Gadhafi's tribe — in the east to Tripoli in the west.

Video: Misrata is the key to the fight for Libya (on this page)

The city, the country's third largest, has endured continuous attacks from Gadhafi forces, as well as shortages of food, fuel and medicine. Despite the onslaught and deprivation, opposition fighters have recently retaken much of the city.

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"I went to Misrata to raise the morale of the people, yeah, and actually … they raised my morale," Tarhouni said. "It's a city that basically understands, not only that they are defending their city, they know exactly that they are defending the future of Libya. The strategic position of Misrata, his attempt to separate west from east, it's very clear for them. … They are brave people."

Seeking U.S. recognition
Tarhouni will visit with several high-ranking U.S. officials and members of Congress during his visit, where he plans to also push Washington to recognize the council as the legitimate government of Libya.

Last week, the council's prime minister presented plans for an interim government, including a committee to draw up a constitution that the people would vote on, and parliamentary and presidential elections, AP reported.

Still, Tarhouni doesn't expect the road to a unified Libya with a democratic government will be easy.

"It's going to be challenging. You need to build a lot of institutions from scratch. Having a constitution by itself doesn't mean that you have a democracy … you need to inform people and you need to teach people," he said. "… We will tackle this. … We will build a decent society for the next generations."

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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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