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Carpet salesman leads hunt for Gadhafi

Hisham Buhagiar, a carpet salesman by trade, is leading the hunt for Libya's former dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

By Mike Taibbi, NBC News Correspondent

TRIPOLI, Libya – Three weeks after Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was driven out of Tripoli, effectively ending his 42-year reign, his would-be successor addressed a cheering crowd of thousands in what used to be called Green Square, the now renamed Martyrs’ Square.

"We seek a state of law and prosperity," said Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the interim head of the anti-Gadhafi forces’ National Transitional Council. The interim government has been recognized by scores of other countries as Libya's new governing authority. With fireworks crackling in the early evening (not gunfire), Jalil warned his own forces against acts of retribution aimed at the remaining Gadhafi loyalists.

"To anyone who harmed the Libyan people in any way," he intoned, “we need the courts... the judicial system... to decide." With that there were more fireworks, a crescendo of shouted acclamation.

Just off the square, a Ferris wheel glittered brightly among the other children’s rides in the city's now re-opened amusement park.  In the harbor that had been empty only days earlier, no fewer than 15 tankers were tied up and waiting for the signal to start taking on fresh shipments of oil and natural gas from two refineries lurching back into production. The shops and cafes in the city's retail sections have come back to life. Sanitation crews are on full schedule, cleaning the city and white-uniformed traffic control officers are back working patiently at the task of keeping the rivers of cars moving.  

Tripoli basically liberated itself on Aug. 21. There had only been a few brief, albeit bloody, skirmishes as rebel forces moved in – Gadhafi “loyalists” simply melting away as they had in many smaller cities and towns as the revolution made its way to the capitol. 

The city’s painters have been busy since then, too – the green of the Gadhafi Revolution of 1969 has already been replaced in thousands of places by the tri-color standard of the National Transitional Council.

And yet no one we've spoken to or heard from – including Abdul Jalil – has proclaimed a "declaration of liberation." The civil war isn’t over, and  won’t be over until one question on the minds of all Libyans is answered: “Where is Gadhafi?”

On the hunt
A half mile from Martyrs’ Square where Jalil was speaking, a quiet man in a neat charcoal grey suit sighed at the question. "Psychologically," said Hisham Buhagiar, pausing at the word, "it is hard to believe that Libya is free.  I look over my shoulder when I call people on the phone, and wonder if the phone is tapped. We still talk in codes..."

A carpet salesman by trade, there are colorful rugs hanging on the walls of his modest office and sample swatches in the entranceway of the nondescript building, Buhagiar has spent almost his entire adulthood in a secret group fostering opposition to Gadhafi and planning his ouster. 

When the war started on Feb. 17 his group came out of the shadows and took up arms – they had trained for it over the years, Buhagiar said, in clandestine trips to weapons camps outside Libya. Buhagiar had been a soldier in four battles during the war earlier this year, suffering gunshot wounds to both legs along the way. Now he's no longer a soldier, but has a different task:  He's the man leading the hunt for Gadhafi himself. 

"He's always on the move, going back and forth and not in one place for long," Buhagiar said of his target.  "He's now under our surveillance. I think we are close enough to get him, perhaps in 10 days or so.  I really mean it."

But by "close enough," Buhagiar concedes it means an area of some 150 square miles in the southern Sahara around the town of Sabha, near the border of landlocked Niger. 

Buhagiar's team is made up of around 60 hunters – but there's no catchy name for the unit or for their mission, nothing like "Operation No More Moammar.” The team relies on both technology and “human assets,” people on the ground in the southern desert enclaves whose reported sightings of Gadhafi's large contingent match the chatter they've picked up through cellphone triangulation.

"But we don't have the technology to track satellite phone conversations," he said, saying carefully that "we have help with that" from other countries. From the U.S.? Great Britain? NATO countries? He nodded in general assent, but said nothing more on the subject.

"The guy has a lot of money, a lot of power," Buhagiar said of his nemesis. "He can hide. Libya is a big country, there's a vast desert with a lot of different tribes. Believe me, that's his neighborhood…That's where he grew up, it’s home for him. And he's been paying his people a lot of money."

Hisham Buhagiar  has been searching for Moammar Gadhafi and recently spoke with NBC's Mike Taibbi about the hunt. He says if Gadhafi is caught, he will be put "through courts."

By "his people," Buhagiar estimates a core traveling contingent of 300 to 500 people, including security forces and his remaining inner circle intimates. At times, Buhagiar reports, his team has received reports of groups that size on the move, pitching tents for a night, gone again the next day.

And what happens if and when his chase teams catch up to the group…and to Gadhafi himself?
"They will just catch him," he said. "We're not going there to kill him...We need to bring him to justice."  

Buhagiar said it would be "good for our ego...if we catch him ourselves," but that he'd have no qualms if Gadhafi escaped to another country which then handed him back to Libya for trial. What about Interpol's "Red Alert" placing Gadhafi at the top of its international "Most Wanted List" for prosecution by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity?

"The Libyan people will put him on trial," he says.  "Perhaps they will hang him."

Hoping the end is near
As civil wars go, this one was quick and surprisingly efficient. Barely six months from beginning to end, perhaps 30,000 killed on both sides, ragtag clusters of rebels armed at first with hunting rifles and the ardor of the oppressed morphing into an actual fighting force.

It helped immeasurably that tens of thousands of Gadhafi's loyalists – weary of his brutal and increasingly eccentric rule – simply laid down and cut and run in one town after another as the war progressed, leaving mercenaries to do much of the fighting. They left their weapons behind when they ran,  providing each class of better-trained rebels with increasing firepower of their own so that in the end it wasn't just an equal playing field, it was tilted toward the rebels' way.

And, of course, there was the U.N. resolution and subsequent NATO bombing campaign. Without it, Gadhafi’s Air Force and Navy – through whatever motivation – might have supplemented the Gadhafi ground forces and made the rebels' march to Tripoli impossible.

Buhagiar conceded that point. "I am a realist," he said, observing that despite years of planning, hoping and the authentic passions of the opposition, there would have been little chance of success, without the help of a real international coalition. “We had no organization, no weapons, no money; no nothing...We were just ordinary people saying ‘no’ to Gadhafi. He had the guns, the money, the power, the land."

Now things seem to be near the end, a couple of holdout towns are refusing to let the National Transitional Council fighters plant their flag, and Gadhafi is still on the run, in hiding. Buhagiar is certain he'll be caught, sooner rather than later.

"We'll put him through the courts. We'll see what his faith is...but we should hear from him. Hear why he was doing all this, why he killed all the people he killed."

And when that part of the story is done, when liberation is final and complete, what will Buhagiar do?
"I have a business to run..."