WASHINGTON Muammar Gaddafi's grip on power may depend in part on the performance of an elite military unit led by one of the Libyan leader's younger sons, according to U.S. and European national security and intelligence officials.
U.S. and European officials, as well as secret State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks, describe Libya's 32nd Brigade, led by Gaddafi's son Khamees, as a relatively well-equipped special forces outfit that, in the words of one cable, is one of the Libyan leader's last-ditch "regime protection units."
The 32nd is the most elite of three "regime protection units," which together total about 10,000 men, U.S. officials said. These units are the only armed forces directly loyal to Gaddafi, while the rest of the military is made up primarily of conscripts and is seeing heavy desertion, they said.
Some witnesses in Libya say the 32nd Brigade has lately been involved in fighting against some insurgent forces. A witness told Reuters by telephone on Thursday that the unit controlled by Khamees Gaddafi had attacked anti-government militias controlling the town of Misrata, 125 miles east of Tripoli, killing several people.
U.S. officials say that while the 32nd Brigade has advanced weaponry and high morale when compared to other Libyan military units, it is not clear how deeply engaged the unit is in active fighting to maintain Gaddafi's grip on power.
Elite is also a relative term.
Compared to elite military units in some neighboring countries or in the West, the 32nd Brigade is "not very skilled," in the words of one U.S. official. "They're not very good," the official added.
While well-equipped by Libyan standards, the brigade's equipment is far from cutting edge. According to some U.S. officials, it may even have suffered intermitted fuel shortages -- a surprising problem in oil-rich Libya.
"The situation is way too fluid to know whether the regime will survive or not, but they're certainly trying to hold things together with duct tape and Krazy Glue," said a U.S. official who is familiar with official government reporting from the region,
State Department cables obtained by Wikileaks describe attempts by representatives of Khamees Gaddafi to obtain military supplies from the United States and Britain.
According to a November 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, in 2008 British authorities turned down a license that would have permitted a British company to export 130,000 Kalashnikov rifles to Libya. The same cable quotes a Libyan businessman saying he had signed a contract with a Romanian company for the supply of 100,000 AK-47 rifles, which were destined for the Khamees brigade.
A December 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli reported how an associate of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar's best-known son and one-time heir apparent, was trying to get the Obama administration to allow the export of new military helicopters to the Khamees brigade -- and complained that such sales were being stalled by legal technicalities and red tape.
The cable described the attempted arms deal as a possible attempt by Saif al-Islam to "curry his youngest brother's (Khamees') favor" adding that: "Given the fact that the "Khamis Brigade is considered the best equipped and most capable of defending the regime, it seems only natural that anyone intent on assuming power would try to align himself with Khamis."
It was unclear which, if any, of the weapons deals went ahead. Neither the Obama administration nor British officials had any immediate response to queries as to whether the U.S. and Britain ever allowed such weapons shipments to Libya to proceed.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers; Editing by Frances Kerry)