* Rebels near Misrata no longer scatter under fire
* They are forming units with a clear chain of command
* New discipline helping rebels push towards Tripoli
By Nick Carey
EAST OF ZLITAN, Libya, July 11 (Reuters) - Midway through the morning, as Grad rockets whooshed through the branches of trees overhead, some of the young men of the 1st battalion Al Marsa regiment began to sing.
A slow, melodic and gentle version of the Muslim call to prayer that begins “Allahu Akbar” or “God is greatest,” drifted along the front line.
Some of the men who were hunkered down behind the sand bank that forms the front line looked tense. Others, between songs, told jokes to pass the time. No one broke ranks.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the scene would have been very different. The rebels would often rush forward chaotically, celebrate their advance by firing off dozens of rounds into the air, then scatter in all directions when government troops started firing artillery rounds.
In the farmland outside the city of Misrata, 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, one of the fronts where the Libyan uprising against Muammar Gaddafi is being fought out, the rebels have found discipline.
They are organising into formal units with a chain of command, fighters are getting rudimentary training and starting to practise basic battlecraft such as digging into defensive positions and conserving bullets.
It is a change that could hold the key to victory as the rebels in this location and on two other fronts, try to push towards Tripoli to end Gaddafi’s 41 years in power. <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ For further stories on the rebels in Misrata, click on [ID:nLDE76904T], [IDn:LDE769083] and [ID:nLDE76904U]))
The men of the 1st battalion Al Marsa regiment were in the fourth day of sustained bombardment by forces loyal to Gaddafi.
This was the pro-Gaddafi forces’ response after the rebels pushed the front line from their base in Misrata to about 10 km (6 miles) east of the strategic city of Zlitan, a town that lies between the rebels and Tripoli 160 km (96 miles) away.
The Grads, usually fired long distances from mobile rocket launchers, are being fired at such a low angle by Gaddafi’s forces that some are seen just overhead before they explode in the abandoned farmland behind the front line with its olive groves and dying crops.
Sniper bullets whine low above the top of the sand bank where the rebel fighters are sheltering.
The rebels return fire occasionally with anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks and with the odd artillery piece fixed to the back of a jeep.
But the fighters, with their Kalashnikov rifles, stay behind the sand bank in the sweltering heat of the day, maintain discipline and do not waste their bullets.
“Gaddafi is angry this morning,” laughs Sofian, 21, a university student turned fighter who sits on a cooler full of iced water holding an AK-47 automatic weapon. “He is trying to send us a message.”
“But we have our own message for him,” he adds, tapping the barrel of his gun and wagging a finger.
Four months ago, almost all the men in the front line here — many are still teenagers dressed in T-shirts and jeans and wearing baseball caps — were civilians with no military experience.
Most of them, like Sofian, learned to fire a gun in the front line. For the first few months, they were engaged in urban warfare, fighting from building to building to try to push Gaddafi’s forces out of their city.
Now that they have done that and moved into a more conventional type of warfare, they have had to change their tactics and the way they organise themselves.
These days, they consolidate their front line and dig in when they move forward with the aim of holding captured territory and reducing casualties. At the front line, teenagers were filling sandbags to provide cover.
There have also been changes in units like the Al Marsa regiment, which has turned itself into a disciplined fighting force with a training program, mechanics, communications, an armoury and even a media department.
New recruits to the regiment now receive four days of training before heading into combat.
“Guerrilla warfare is different from the front line,” says Abu Youssef, who is in his 50s and has been fighting since April. “You don’t need that much training to fight house to house in your own city, but you need it for the front line.”
The training includes live firing. But due to the need to conserve ammunition, recruits receive just four bullets each for the training exercises.
The fighters in the Al Marsa’s 1st battalion, which has several hundred active fighters, are funded and supported by local businessman Mahmoud Mohammed Askutri, who provides food, weapons, ammunition and wages to the men.
Askutri’s summer home by the sea on the outskirts of Misrata serves as a base for the men of the battalion.
The Al Marsa regiment — made up of two battalions — is commanded in the field by Salim Al Zofri, a former truck driver and prominent figure in the early days of the uprising in Misrata.
Early in the morning, fighters of the 1st battalion line up in orderly fashion at a window of their base to sign for and receive their weapons.
They check them and clean them, before taking a bus to a position a few kilometres behind the front line. They also sign for their ammunition.
Ammunition is in short supply, so fighters are only allowed to fire their weapons when ordered and must account for ammunition when they return to base.
The young men in 1st battalion Al Marsa have one 24-hour shift at the line, then two days off.
“Whatever they do in their private lives is their own business, not ours,” Askutri said, speaking at the battalion’s base. “But when they go to the front line, they have to follow our rules.”
The men are not allowed to swear while on duty and are expected to fight, but not take unnecessary risks.
“Our main aim is to keep our young men as safe as possible because we want them to be able to keep fighting,” Askutri said. “Their blood is precious to us.”
Up at the front line, Al Zofri says the rebels are now preparing for the push into Zlitan, which will be led by residents of the town who know the terrain.
When prompted by one of his men, Al Zofri displays a large scar on his chest, a permanent reminder of being shot in the chest in mid-March at close range with an anti-aircraft bullet.
The rebels have learned from recently captured Gaddafi troops that morale on the other side “is now less than zero.”
The young men in the rebel line laugh and smoke in the shade while the bombardment continues and say they have adapted quickly to war.
“The most important thing I have learned since I got here was how to be brave,” said Khalifa, 20, whose first shift on the line was two weeks ago. “I am not frightened anymore.”
Towards lunchtime, the bombardment increases in intensity and a mortar shell lands on the line, wounding eight men, one of them seriously.
One of the young men holds his right hand, where one of his fingers has nearly been severed. Another walks around in shock, bleeding from a shoulder wound and shrapnel in his abdomen, until he and the others are bundled in cars and rushed back to the field hospital behind the lines.
Earlier, the same young man had wandered up the line telling his comrades he knew he would be injured that day.
A few minutes after the casualties leave, one of the few career soldiers in the unit walks along the line shouting at the young men not to gather in groups but to spread out more.
One of the problems the rebels faced in the past was mortars or rockets often hitting groups of men as they huddled or gathered for lunch, causing far more casualties than would be the case if they were dispersed.
The mortar attack has rattled the nerves of the young men. One of them prays silently to himself while others frown, lost in thought.
Then one young man begins the song again invoking the Muslim call to prayer, walking exposed along the back of the line and waving his hands, palms upwards, as if conducting a choir.
The refrain begins again and gains in strength as more voices take it up along the line.
“Faced with a choice of dying or fighting, they will give their lives for their homeland,” Abu Youssef said, beaming as he watched the younger men sing. “They have come so far now they cannot be stopped.” (Editing by Peter Cooney)