Last updated: March 23, 2011 12:49 am

Gaddafi relies on narrow inner circle

On the surface, western leaders’ statements on targeting Muammer Gaddafi sound confused: we want him to go, they say, but the UN mandate to protect civilians does not allow a direct attack on the Libyan leader.

In as much as the western coalition leading the military action in Libya has a coherent strategy, however, the objective appears to be the use of military force to encourage defections and chip away at Colonel Gaddafi’s regime and support base.

As Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, says: “Certainly the conditions that will unfold as we begin to enforce this [UN] resolution will make a new environment in which people are going to act, including those around Col Gaddafi.”

Later on Tuesday, she told ABC News, that people apparently close to Col Gaddafi were “reaching out” to see how to bring the face off with the US and its allies to end.

“We’ve heard about other people close to him reaching out to people that they know around the world – Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America, beyond – saying, ‘What do we do? How do we get out of this? What happens next?’”

”Some of it is theatre,” Mrs Clinton said. “”But some of it, we think, is exploring – ‘What are my options? Where could I go? What could I do?’ – and we would encourage that.” She reiterated that the US “would like to see Gaddafi leave power and transition to a different future for the Libyan people.”

After the defections in the early days of the revolt, when diplomats, senior officials and military officers deserted the colonel in droves, the regime has consolidated its grip on power as it launched a counter-offensive against the rebels.

While it may be too early to predict whether Mrs Clinton’s words will become reality, regime defectors and Libya experts say Col Gaddafi has long ago prepared for such an eventuality, considerably narrowing his inner circle to those he is certain will remain loyal.

“Gaddafi is a very ruthless man and a very determined man and an unusual and unpredictable man, so he can try every trick to keep his people together,” says Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Tripoli.

“Whether he succeeds depends on how much pressure his entourage is under and how they see their own personal future and his future.”

Col Gaddafi’s inner circle today consists of his children, cousins and tribesmen related to his Gadadfa clan. “It’s the father, son and the holy spirit,” quips Saad Djebbar, a lawyer with extensive experience in Libya. “He’s gotten rid of everyone else, neutralised them or marginalised them.”

Once reliant on a council of comrades who led the 1969 revolution that brought him to power, Col Gaddafi has gradually sidelined those closest to him, including Abdessalam Jalloud, the adviser who has been under house arrest since the 1990s, and Abu Bakr Younis Jabir and Mustafa Kharroubi, the two generals who once led the armed forces.

Obsessive about plots against him, one of Gaddafi’s big overhauls has been to weaken the conventional army, creating instead a parallel structure of security brigades whose loyalty is tied to his family.

The so-called kataeb al amnia are commanded by Col Gaddafi’s sons and cousins and are now leading the battle against the rebels.

Some analysts say two of the children, Khamis and Mutassim, are personally heading brigades that tried to take over Benghazi at the weekend.

“Inside the brigades, some of the troops are dying [under western air strikes] so if someone were to give them some assurance they might shift to the rebels’ side, especially the ones in the east,” says one senior defector. “But they are living under fear as well.” Over the past month, some family members have distanced themselves from the regime but not declared their defection. Ahmad Gaddaf al-Dam, a cousin and the main diplomatic troubleshooter, left Tripoli for Egypt but defectors say he has not been working with the opposition.

Abdallah Senoussi, a brother-in-law and head of external intelligence, meanwhile, was reported to have been sacked in February.

Some defectors say Ezzeddine al Hinshiri, one of the main security men around Col Gaddafi yet, unusually, not a member of the leader’s family or tribe, could play a pivotal role in any anti-Gaddafi insider move. But he iM suspected of involvement in terrorism and therefore unlikely to act without assurances of immunity.

Outside the core inner circle, a group of officials and chiefs of revolutionary committees that in effect run the country also could face prosecution for alleged past crimes if they were to turn against Col Gaddafi. Among them is Moussa Koussa, the foreign minister and former head of external intelligence who is alleged to have been involved in the killing of dissidents abroad.

“These people are tied to him and will live and die with him and some of them have blood on their hands so they will be wanted,” says Abdel-Monem al-Houni, until recently Libya’s ambassador to the Arab League.

“It is said that they are all under some form of house arrest in any case, with people monitoring them whenever they go to give a press conference,” he adds.

In the end, he reckons, “It will have to be the young people [the rebels] who will have to go to the west and finish off Gaddafi.”

Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey in Washington

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