ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) - Colonel Juma Ibrahim still wears the wings of the MiG 25 fighter pilot and instructor he was until a few months ago, when he joined the rebellion in Libya’s Western Mountains against Muammar Gaddafi.
Now, he’s grounded, helping to direct a war with Citizens’ Band radio, Google maps and Skype.
Rebel spotters on the ground describe for him the artillery positions or movements of Gaddafi’s forces using a contour of the desert or a cluster of almond trees that fighters from these parts might know by name.
NATO planes, flying at high altitude, are heard but rarely seen. They are fighting a war at arm’s length, keeping Gaddafi’s forces from the rebel gates, without removing the threat altogether.
The rebels are left to make it up as they go along.
“NATO is protecting us, but it seems they don’t want us to go to Tripoli,” said Ibrahim.
The western front of the Libyan war amounts to a chain of towns running more than 200 km (125 miles) from the Tunisian border across the bleak mountain plateau to the rebel command centre of Zintan, some 150 km southwest of the capital.
Gaddafi’s forces hold the desert plains and, at their closest point, sit level with Zintan some 10-15 km from the town centre, shelling the desert and exchanging tank rounds and heavy gunfire with overstretched and ill-disciplined rebels.
The town itself has come under fire, most recently on Monday.
This is a do-it-yourself war of stolen ammunition, smuggled fuel and aid supplies of tinned tuna and processed cheese.
Their planes grounded by NATO, Gaddafi’s forces quite literally face an uphill battle to wrest the Western Mountains from the rebels, many of them ethnic Berbers who see the rebellion as a chance to reassert an identity denied them under the Libyan leader.
But it has not stopped Gaddafi from besieging both ends of the rebel-held strip — the border crossing to the west and Zintan to the east.
Battles last week, witnessed by Reuters, laid bare the limitations of the rebels on the ground and of an air war waged by NATO pilots at 12,000 feet.
There is rising frustration among the mountain rebels at what they see as NATO’s half-hearted approach to war and its reluctance to engage with them directly.
As pro-Gaddafi forces rained artillery down on the desert to the east of Zintan, rebel commander Fethi al-Ayab tried to coordinate the response using the kind of limited-range CB radio found in taxis.
Rebels in civilian cars and mismatched military fatigues rushed to the front, some at the trigger of anti-aircraft guns, others armed with shotguns.
Spotters reported back to the control centre in Zintan, where Ibrahim or, on this occasion, a former pilot named Abdullah, tracked down the coordinates of the enemy positions using Google Maps and sent word via Skype to Benghazi, which passed the information to NATO advisers in the de facto rebel capital, Abdullah explained the evening after the fight.
Rebels in Zintan say that officially they have no direct contact with NATO and, unlike Benghazi, no advisers from the Western alliance on the ground to help coordinate the fight.
“Sometimes it takes 40 minutes to see the plane. It’s a long time,” said Abdullah, a senior rebel with a wiry moustache and until four months ago a career as a transport pilot.
NATO hit the artillery positions in the direction of the blockaded town of Yafran, driving Gaddafi’s forces back across the brook, and pounded huge weapons depots beneath the desert to the south to rebel cries of “Allahu Akbar!”
But they kept coming. Rebel commander Al-Ayab got word that a convoy of Gaddafi vehicles led by at least one tank had advanced through the village of Ryayna, outflanking the rebels who sped to reinforce.
On the brow of the hill, the rebels opened fire with anti-aircraft guns. Tracer rounds and what appeared to be a rocket-propelled grenade fired in reply sent the second line of rebel defence scurrying for cover.
Some said Gaddafi’s forces were retreating, until the rebels came screeching down the hill and everyone beat a hasty retreat back towards Zintan.
The rebels were harried and harassed, forced to expend valuable ammunition and fuel.
“I am a pilot. I know what it means, this force,” Abdullah said of NATO. “If I have NATO forces, I can take Africa in three days, four days,” he said.
“It’s going slowly. I don’t know why. Maybe there is a political problem.”
Two months of NATO air strikes have yet to silence Gaddafi’s guns or break the military stalemate. France said on Monday it would deploy attack helicopters, and Britain said it was considering the same.
The move marks a significant escalation of the air campaign to take on targets hard to reach from high altitude.
But it carries the risk of helicopters being downed by ground fire and drawing NATO forces into the kind of ground war it promised to avoid given the involvement of Western soldiers in wars in two other Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The rebels alone are unable to inflict any major battlefield defeat on Gaddafi’s forces. In towns like Yafran and Gelaa to the east of Zintan, the remaining residents — mainly men — are surrounded at a distance by Gaddafi forces.
In Juma Ibrahim’s office is more evidence of the disjointed way the battle for the Western Mountains is being fought.
On the coffee table lay a sheet of paper bearing handwritten coordinates. Punched into Google Map, they marked a cluster of outlying buildings next to the town of Ghezaya.
From an observation post on the mountain, rebels say the buildings house Gaddafi’s men and their artillery, from which they frequently attack the rebel-held border crossing.
“All the time he (Gaddafi) is very close, and all the time he is trying,” said Abdullah, the rebel.
“Why hasn’t someone come for one day from NATO to see us? He sees the situation, we make direct contact with him, and we finish this problem quickly.”