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Associated Press/Photo by Sergei Grits

Last stand

Libya | Opposition forces advance on Tripoli, but Muammar Qaddafi may save his worst violence for last

If Muammar Qaddafi's choice of words is an accurate indication of his state of mind, the Libyan leader is coming unglued. In a rambling speech on state television on Thursday, the dictator explained what he claimed to be the source of the revolt that threatens his four-decade reign: young protesters under the influence of Osama bin Laden and hallucinogenic drugs.

The leader accused his opponents of coming under al-Qaeda's sway but didn't address protesters' demands for greater freedoms. Qaddafi's defiant condemnation of opponents seeking to topple his regime concluded with a puzzling declaration: "We have 3 million Libyans-they run the country." Libya's population is nearly 6 million.

Ten days after mass protests began unfolding across the country, Qaddafi's grip on reality wasn't the only thing loosening: Opposition forces reportedly control large swaths of eastern Libya, and are advancing toward the capital city of Tripoli.

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The signs of opposition triumph over an entrenched regime are firmly planted atop buildings and homes across the region: The dictator's opponents are flying the red, black, and blue flag of the country's pre-Qaddafi days. (Qaddafi banned the flag after seizing power in a coup nearly 42 years ago.)

But the battle for the country isn't over: Qaddafi has vowed he will stay and "die as a martyr" before giving up control of the oil-rich nation he's ruled for decades. The leader has also vowed his willingness to see others die: Qaddafi called protesters "cockroaches," and said regime opponents would face execution. Witnesses report that pro-government forces have already killed hundreds, including unarmed civilians.

President Barack Obama called the regime's use of violence against protesters "outrageous and unacceptable," but U.S. officials worry that the attacks against opponents could grow worse: Qaddafi's available resources include a dangerous stockpile of chemical weapons.

Officials believe the regime maintains at least 9.5 metric tons of mustard gas, 1,000 metric tons of uranium yellowcake, and other chemical capabilities. And while a chemical attack could take time to launch, officials worry about a trove of other weapons, including Scud B missiles, Kaleshnikov rifles, and land mines.

Even with top regime officials defecting to the opponents' camp, Qaddafi appears to maintain enough forces to mount a wider attack. His virulent language and violence against his own people are ruling out hopes that he will exercise restraint when it comes to worst-case scenarios: That could make the fight for Tripoli a grim last stand for both sides.
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Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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