FEATURE-Libya's "steadfast city" seeks normality and assistance

Wed Sep 14, 2011 10:00am EDT

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* Misrata's water, electricity facilities damaged during siege

* Much of central Tripoli Street still lies in ruins

* Fist statue from Gaddafi's compound brought to Misrata

By Alexander Dziadosz

MISRATA, Libya, Sept 14 (Reuters) - After four months under siege, signs of recovery are showing up in the western port city that was so central to the revolt that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.

But some residents of Misrata say the aid they need to rebuild is coming slowly -- far too slowly -- and accuse the country's interim leaders of favouring other cities with whom they may have closer ties.

Abdelbasat al-Hadad, chief of the local governing council's relief committee, said the city still needed money and other support to help tend thousands of wounded, assist families of the dead and care for psychologically-scarred children.

Water and electricity facilities have also been damaged and many government buildings and schools need to be rebuilt.

"Officials say Misrata is a priority, that they stand with it and that they're looking after it, but the operational reality is that Misrata has not received anything that shows they really see it as a priority," Hadad said.

The situation in Misrata shows the scale of the challenge facing Libya's National Transitional Council as it tries to rebuild the country, stave off regional factionalism and unite a nation split apart by almost seven months of war.

"We do appreciate Misrata has given a lot of martyrs and has suffered enormously. I think Misrata will get its appropriate attention, but the situation at the moment is still up in the air," said NTC spokesman Jalal al-Galal.

"Of course, Misrata was the epitome of resistance to Gaddafi, but Misrata is not the only city that paid a heavy price."

CREDIBILITY AT STAKE

The NTC's ability to restore damaged cities and its criteria for dividing money and services will be a major factor in gaining credibility among the various parties vying for power in post-Gaddafi Libya. Already, signs of factionalism have emerged.

Armed brigades in Tripoli spray walls and cars with the names of their home towns, and wear t-shirts advertising their origins.

If the interim rulers are unable to balance between the competing demands of various groups who feel their role in the uprising entitles them to shares of money and power, it could lead to long-term instability and more government shake-ups.

The uncertainty would make it harder for foreign governments and firms to know who they are dealing with, complicate getting the oil and gas-based economy back online and hinder the formation of the functional state everyone is anxiously hoping for.

It could also make it harder to get the many armed, independently-operating brigades across the country to lay down their weapons or integrate them into a cohesive army or police force.

Libyan leaders are fully aware of the dangers. In their first public speeches in Tripoli on Monday night, NTC leaders praised the fighters who were from outside the capital and called out the cities one by one.

STALINGRAD

Other Libyan cities -- including Zintan in the Western Mountains, Zawiyah west of Tripoli and Ajdabiya in the east -- sustained damage during fighting and were evacuated in whole or in part, but it's widely agreed this city of 300,000 sustained the worst from Gaddafi's tanks, artillery and mortars.

The western gate is blocked off by sand piles and 18-wheeler

trucks. Piles of shattered breeze blocks litter the streets, public buildings are in ruins and its schools are shuttered.

Billboards urge residents to watch for landmines.

Along the main thoroughfare of Tripoli Street, stores, clinics, government offices and apartment blocks are blown to pieces. Windows are smashed and charred satellite dishes hang from balcony railings melted by heat.

"The electricity grids, the water grids, the sewage grids -- all of them have been damaged," Hadad said. "Misrata was shelled randomly for a long time. More than 1,000 of its sons were martyred."

Misrata's resistance against some of Gaddafi's best-equipped troops, aided by NATO air power and weapons shipped from Benghazi, gave rebels a stronghold in western Libya and helped them counter fears the country was slipping into a regional war.

The victory spread the city's reputation throughout the country and stirred its residents' pride. Revolutionary songs broadcast on the radio, billboards and graffiti advertise Misrata as "medinat al-somoud" -- the steadfast city.

Some Libyans have started to call Misrata "the Stalingrad of Libya".

"Misrata was the city that took the most damage -- from rockets, from tanks, everything," said Hosam el-Zein, a 22-year-old resident, echoing a refrain often heard in the city.

"Gaddafi's troops broke into our homes. They looted and abused women. They killed people, a lot of innocent people, for no reason. That's why we fought so hard."

WAR PRIZES

When opposition fighters overran Bab al-Aziziya, Gaddafi's Tripoli compound, one brigade removed a gold-coloured statue of a fist crushing an American warplane, and took it to their base outside Misrata.

The monument, which Gaddafi erected to show his defiance after a 1986 U.S. bombing campaign, now sits amid concrete piping at the brigade's seaside base, covered in graffiti and Libya's tricolour independence flag.

"We were proud, and so we brought back something extra," Ali Muftah, a 31-year-old brigade member, said of the monument as he sat in his rocket launcher-mounted pickup truck parked nearby, smoking a cigarette.

Some signs of normal life are returning to the city. Around the corner from Tripoli Street, children trotted around a park and played on swing sets, enjoying a late summer evening. Men picked dates from palm trees along the streets.

Following news that some countries were unfreezing billions of dollars worth of Libyan assets abroad, Hadad said he hoped the city would get more assistance from the interim leaders soon.

"We're waiting to see what they do, what they will offer Misrata," he said. "Misrata is the city of perseverance, and it took serious damage. We hope we'll be given a share to help restore our buildings and return life to normal."

Hadad was also optimistic after hearing the speech of the de facto prime minister Mahmoud Jibril in Tripoli on Monday night.

"If just a part of what Jibril said is implemented, things will be going pretty well," he said. (Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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