Libya: What welcome awaits rebels in Tripoli?

A Libyan soldier watches over pro-Gaddafi rally in Zlitan, 15 July
Image caption Many Libyans remain loyal to the Gaddafi regime

Life at the Rixos Hotel, where the international media are being housed, remains much the same - a constant battle with the minders who control our every move.

But this past week, I witnessed something different - sizeable crowds in the locations to which we were taken. Tens of thousands of people who owe their allegiance to the leader we never see.

In Zlitan, west of Misrata, there was almost an evangelical fervour in the square. Hard to believe the front line was just several miles to the east.

With his government teetering - Col Gaddafi is organising the tribes who stand by him, gathering the loyalties that have kept him in power these 41 years.

No doubt some of the supporters were bussed in. But there is no discounting the genuine support that exists.

"Muammar is the love of millions" was the message written on the hands of women in the square.

Of course we don't see the thousands of other people in Tripoli who are opposed to Col Gaddafi's rule. Under tight restrictions, it is impossible to report accurately where the true balance of support really lies.

Media strategy

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim is trying to counter a rebel assertion that once they reach the gates of Tripoli, the city will implode from within.

Perhaps it will, but the support we are seeing suggests there is still plenty of fighting to come.

In the past week we have been taken to Zlitan, Gharyan to the south - now the frontline in the Nafusa mountains - and Zawiya, scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the earliest weeks of the conflict.

Big population centres, each strategically important to any final assault on the capital.

The regime's message is quite simple: "Gaddafi retains control. The rebels are outnumbered."

Col Gaddafi still believes he can finesse this situation. If he can withstand the bombing, while showing the world there is this defiant support behind him, then perhaps public opinion in the West might turn against this war.

He hopes that eventually Nato countries will have to come to the negotiating table - with him still leading one side of the country.

Image caption Col Gaddafi makes selective public appearances

At the weekend in Tunis, the Americans delivered an uncompromising message that that is not going to happen.

So how much pressure is Col Gaddafi now under? Well, if pressure is measured in barrels of oil or cars lined up on petrol station forecourts, the answer is significant pressure.

We have been told there is a shortage of spare parts, a danger the water system may collapse, problems gathering the harvest, difficulties distributing food.

It is no secret sanctions hurt the little man more than they hurt the army commanders who are given preference at the pumps.

But surely it is getting harder, logistically, for the loyalist army to fight on so many fronts.

We see plenty of Gaddafi's troops in the town and cities we visit - we have yet to see Gaddafi's army at the front line.

"I make no apology for that," said Moussa Ibrahim. "We are at war with the world. You are their eyes on the ground. Besides our army commanders do not have the time to escort you around the battlefield."

Chat show

If propaganda has become the government's principal weapon in this war, then the man who wields it is Dr Yosif Shakeir. Five days a week he presents the late night chat show on state television.

He is one the regime's most passionate disciples - and yet some years ago he was an opponent, on the run.

On the Rixos lobby Facebook page, there is a video filmed in the US some years ago in which the dissident Dr Shakeir tells a reporter he was moving place to place in the US mid-west, fearful he was about to be "liquidated" by Col Gaddafi's spies.

The rebels and the opposition despise him - the colonel has grown to trust him.

"I support my country, Libya," he said. "I saw the conspiracy [the reason he gives for the uprising] I know it very well. And so I decided to campaign to make the people aware."

He has only been doing this job since the conflict began. We were the first crew to have been invited on to his set.

Nato, he says, has tried to take state television off air several times. On one occasion a bomb landed within 100m (330ft) from the building in which he was broadcasting, he adds.

"Every night before I go on air I make my peace with Allah," he said. "Why are they trying to kill me? Am I not allowed to speak freely in my own country?"

And yet today he is probably much safer. His studio has been rebuilt in the bowels of the Rixos Hotel.

Mr Shakeir told me he speaks regularly to Col Gaddafi.

"He remains the symbol of our revolution… like the Queen is the symbol of yours. And he won't be sent into exile. We won't allow it," he says.

Where is Col Gaddafi?

Image caption The rebels have doggedly pursued their dream of reaching Tripoli

"Who knows? Maybe here in my pocket," he says with a grin.

Like the Wizard of Oz, the colonel is elusive, although now he is a fugitive in his own city.

He uses state television to stay in touch with his people, broadcasting almost every week from wherever he hides.

With or without the colonel, Dr Shakeir describes an end-game very different to the one painted by Nato and the rebels.

"If and when the rebels come to the city, I will take my Kalashnikov and fight," he says.

"The scenario being sold to the West is that when the rebels reach Tripoli it's over. Well, no way. Believe me, no way!"

That is an uncomfortable prospect for Nato and its allies - a war that drags the Arab Spring into the depths of winter.

The colonel is caught in a ratchet and it is tightening. But there is still no sign that the end game is imminent. On the evidence of the support we have seen it is not likely to be clean either.

The question is whether Nato and its allies have the money, the resolve, and their own domestic support, to see this through.

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