By Jim Maceda, NBC News Correspondent
TRIPOLI, Libya – So what has the mercurial Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi been up to while the world has focused on Japan?
One could rightly ask, as did a Swiss reader of the New York Times did in Wednesday’s Opinion section, if some dictators in the Arab World see ‘‘the unfolding catastrophe in Japan … as convenient camouflage to ramp up actions that would otherwise be more widely condemned?”
AHMED JADALLAH / Reuters
Libyan government soldiers celebrate at the west gate of town Ajdabiyah on Wednesday. Note that the photo was taken during a guided government tour.
It’s a tempting idea that might well apply to recent crackdowns in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. But it really hasn’t applied here. True to himself as always, Gadhafi continues to march to the beat of his own drum.
Gadhafi forces continue steady onslaught
Forces loyal to Gadhafi stopped the rebel advance on Tripoli in a small town called Bin Jawad over a week ago, and ever since, the regime seems to have snapped out of its slumber, or initial confusion, or rope-a-dope strategy. Now Gadhafi’s forces are driving back the rebels with a withering combination of artillery, tank fire, rockets and bombs from the air and sea.
From Bin Jawad, to Ras Lanuf, to Brega and now Ajdabiya – one key oil port after the next – Gadhafi’s forces have moved at a steady, fast pace. They’ve continued their advancement before, during and after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami – both when Libya was the lead story, and now that it’s become the “bumped” story.
As the loyalist juggernaut moves like a freight train along Libya’s Mediterranean coast toward the final rebel stronghold of Benghazi, it’s the unfolding events in New York at the U.N., not Japan that may be driving it.
Gadhafi’s son, Saif, boasted to French-based TV channel Euronews Wednesday that “everything will be over in 48 hours.”
The regime seems worried that the international community might somehow vote for, and quickly impose, a no-fly zone over Libya. That, plus other military options on NATO’s table – a maritime ban, and giving the rebels some $32 billion in frozen Gadhafi assets to purchase heavy weapons – might inspire the rebels to put up a better fight.
PATRICK BAZ / AFP - Getty Images
Libyan rebels load ammunition onto their vehicle in the eastern Libyan coastal town of Tobruk near the border with Egypt on Wednesday.
This is why Libya analysts say Gadhafi’s forces have been building steam – in order to encircle and besiege the rebels in Benghazi before any of those “game-changers” might make a difference.
But, frankly, the regime would likely win this war even with both a no-fly zone and a maritime ban to deal with. Gadhafi’s forces are still trained and disciplined soldiers, while the rebels read weapons manuals on the battlefield.
Government minders glad for the break
None of this means that the current Libya news “blackout” hasn’t come as a boon to our local “minders” – those government handlers and their bosses whose job it is to spout the regime’s line, and make sure no journalist gets too close to the truth, all in the name of showing us the truth.
They have expended Herculean energy in an attempt to “prove” to 130-odd foreign reporters that:
1) There was never a group of peaceful protesters in Libya.
2) Even if there were peaceful protesters, they were never crushed by plainclothes security at the very start of their marches.
3) The rebels are not Libyan freedom-fighters but “rats” – trained terrorists from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other al-Qaida havens.
In doing so, they’ve cut off our cell phones, kept us in our hotel by offering a string of meaningless press conferences and have yet to take us near the actual front lines.
(And some journalists have met tough resistance from local authorities. The New York Times said four of its journalists were missing in Libya on Wednesday. The Times said it had spoken with Libya government officials who said they were attempting to find out more about the journalists).
After three weeks of trying to keep all these probing reporters and cameramen in line, all the minders seem to be exhausted. Now, the tragedy in Japan has bought them a little time, and a lot fewer rockets from their own bosses in Tripoli, who had complained of too much “negative coverage of Libya” … until that coverage effectively stopped, this past weekend.
I happened to break the news of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami – and how the tragedy had literally washed Libya off our broadcasts – to a government spokesman here on Friday. I’ll never forget his reaction. “Thanks, God!” he said, looking to the heavens.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in Libya.