Who's in charge? Sorting out Libya's rebel armies

Libyan youths listen to instructions from a rebel on how to use a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) during the final phase of their military training in the eastern city of Benghazi on 9 May 2011 Image copyright AFP

I'm looking at a squiggle of black lines and boxes on a small scrap of paper.

An official from Libya's rebel administration - a volunteer like so many in this DIY revolution - has been trying, with a biro, to explain the chain of command that is, or should be, emerging from the chaos of militias, local brigades and official military structures that together make up the force fighting Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

"It's complicated," Ahmed Elgallal concedes with a sheepish grin. "But we're making progress."

British military advisers - visible around the city, but not talking to journalists - are among those trying to help the National Transitional Council in Benghazi to establish what many see as a prerequisite for any successful military push against Gaddafi loyalists - a clear command structure.

It's a slow process. The clearest sign of that is the endless squabbling over who should take the top job - what would be the defence minister post in a proper government.

The various regional brigades that emerged at the beginning of the conflict and still do the heavy work on the frontlines are demanding their own man, while those in charge of the embryonic army being trained in Benghazi have other ideas.

The new army chief of staff, Abdul Fattah Younis, was Col Gaddafi's interior minister until he defected. "It's good he's here," said one official privately, "but trust will take time."

The rebel's military spokesman, Col Akmed Banni, acknowledges there are still many problems: "It's all true," he smiles. But he insists the lines of command are slowly being mapped out, and "the picture should change next week".

World amends

But that still leaves the rebel army with another, perhaps bigger headache - their continued lack of weapons. The colonel rattles off a long shopping list including anti-tank missiles, night-vision equipment, communication systems, and even radar.

"Some we are getting already - from our friends in the free world," he says, declining to provide details. But it's not enough to launch a big offensive.

"What we have is enough to make us resist - just resist - the attacks of Gaddafi's brigades. We are waiting for other weapons in order to start to liberate our country."

The international arms embargo remains a source of deep frustration here. "The contradictions are mind-boggling," one official told me. "We can't do this alone. The world should make amends for cosying up to Gaddafi."

There are signs of increased military co-ordination between the rebels and Nato, both on the eastern front near Ajdabiya, and around Misrata. But it is clearly proving hard to synchronise such mismatched forces.

Still, there are other factors that may influence the pace and outcome of this conflict more decisively.

In particular, there is the condition and the morale of Gaddafi's own military. Both are hard to pin down, but a "lucky" air strike by Nato or a dramatic wave of defections could be crucial.