Six months ago Mehdi al-Harati, an Arabic teacher, said goodbye to his wife and four children in Dublin and went off to war. Last week I was alongside him and his men — many of them from Britain — as they prepared to storm the Bastille of the Libyan revolution.
In quick succession both he and I were hit by snipers’ bullets, but we survived and raced on towards Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s heavily fortified palace in central Tripoli.
The high walls of the Bab al-Aziziya compound embodied the 42 years of oppression that Gadaffi had inflicted on his country.
“Sheikh” Mehdi’s 350-strong brigade of Libyan exiles, buzzing with the accents of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, were determined to be the first insurgents to breach the walls as the regime tottered last week.
The Tripoli Brigade, as they called themselves, had trained for four months in Libya’s western mountains with French, American and Qatari special forces for this moment.
I watched the brown-bearded rebel commander — a compact and strong figure but also a diabetic with a heart problem — sprint up a narrow alleyway under heavy sniper fire, waving his men forwards. As the 38-year-old raced towards a watchtower guarding the compound’s entrance, a bullet smashed into his ankle, knocking him to the ground.
Picking himself up, Mehdi ducked into a side street. His fighters crowded round him, screaming over the radio for an ambulance to come forward from behind the rebel front line. Word quickly spread among the rebel ranks, deflating morale.
The medics sped through the streets, braving barrages of gunfire. They wound a bandage around Mehdi’s ankle and told him to stay back. But within half an hour he was back on the front line where his men could see him alive and fighting again.
As he barked commands over his radio on the opposite side of the road, a bullet smacked into my helmet, sending me flying into the dirt. I checked for blood and was surprised to find none.
Soon afterwards another bullet knocked the camera out of the hands of Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times photographer. He was also unhurt. We were lucky. But for the Libyans, the battle for Bab al-Aziziya was going to be brutal.
Some of the men under Mehdi’s command had never seen their homeland before volunteering for the brigade six months ago. Others had fled Libya under fear of arrest, torture or worse to live in Britain, Ireland and other countries offering asylum to Gadaffi’s opponents.
“Most people discover their roots with a bag over their shoulder,” said one of them, Muhammad, who has lived in Manchester all his life. “But I am doing this with a gun slung over my shoulder.”
Mehdi himself left Tripoli for Ireland 18 years ago after Gadaffi’s agents arrested him because members of his family had been preaching antiregime rhetoric.
He immersed himself in charity work, moved briefly to Manchester to run a greengrocer’s but returned to Ireland. As a devout Muslim and charity activist he felt drawn to the Middle East. He was shot in the leg and arrested on the Turkish flotilla which Israeli commandos assaulted as it approached Gaza last year.
When he headed for Benghazi to sign up after the first stirrings of Libyan revolt in February, there was talk of Gadaffi being swept away within weeks by the tide of revolution that had engulfed the presidents of neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt. But the campaign got bogged down in Libya’s vast coastal wastelands.
Strikes on Gadaffi’s forces by Nato planes — 8,000 in total — had little noticeable impact on the stalemate. Only two weeks ago critics were still dismissing the rebel forces as a rabble and saying British and French air support for them was futile. So what happened in the space of just a few days to bring Mehdi and his men to the walls of Bab al-Aziziya?
August is the hottest month of the year in Libya, when observers expected the fighting to pause. Instead, the military picture was transformed. One of the key reasons was the work of special forces on the ground from Britain, France and Qatar.
With Nato drones overhead, beaming real-time images of the ground in front of them, rebels advanced in the wake of more bombing raids. Jets were called in by special forces, acting as forward air controllers, to attack Gadaffi’s tanks and command centres. Rebels fed back information using satellite phones supplied by Britain and France, bringing more bombs down on ammunition stores and communications facilities.
Members of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, experts in covert intelligence gathering, were part of the 30-strong British special forces team. They linked with their French counterparts at Zuwaytinah, the command headquarters for the eastern front, 90 miles southwest of Benghazi. The French troops are believed to be members of the Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS), which draws from the elite parachute regiments of the French army.
In the air Nato sharpened its information gathering by deploying RAF Sentinel aircraft which can use radar imagery to track the smallest vehicle from 100 miles away. They overflew the battle zones, mapping the positions of Gadaffi forces.
The RAF lost its Nimrod R1 signals intelligence aircraft to government cuts early in the campaign, but began flying alongside American air force crews in two RC-135 Rivet Joint spy planes based at Souda Bay in Crete. They can monitor mobile and satellite telephones as well as standard military radio frequencies.
In a decisive move on August 18, the RAF was called in to sink a boat filled with soldiers loyal to the dictator on their way to defend Libya’s last functioning oil refinery at Zawiyah, 30 miles from Tripoli. Once the refinery had fallen, Gadaffi had no fuel for his regime.
The next day rebels enacted the plan to take the capital, when RAF Tornado GR4 aircraft attacked the Baroni Centre, a key communications base in Tripoli.
Operation Mermaid Dawn — Libya’s ancient capital is known as the Mermaid of the Mediterranean — began at 8pm with a speech by Mahmoud Jibril, chairman of the National Transitional Council, which was broadcast on Libya TV, a channel based in Qatar.
This was the sign to begin the advance on the capital and for the underground resistance movement inside Tripoli to rise up against the regime.
For months resistance leaders inside the capital had run a clandestine operation, smuggling in weapons and occasionally ambushing cars carrying pro-Gadaffi loyalists with poorly made plastic pipe bombs fashioned from explosives normally used by Tripoli’s fishermen.
Some residents, who had watched Libyan troop movements inside the city, noticed snipers positioned high in buildings and brought them food and water, pretending to be Gadaffi loyalists.
“We wanted them to think we weren’t suspicious. But really we were just checking where they were so that we could kill them when the time came,” said Haitham Katib, 45.
When the oil refinery fell in Zawiyah, Katib and his neighbours along Abdel Nasser Street sneaked up on the sniper positions with hunting knives and meat cleavers. Nine of Katib’s friends were killed. But as they methodically attacked the sniper positions, they slowly built up a small arsenal of captured assault rifles, making the job of finishing off the snipers less gruesome.
Residents in the area were terrified that the regime would launch a brutal crackdown unless the rebels entered Tripoli within days. They knew that a few checkpoints and assault rifles were no match for Gadaffi’s forces.
The RAF had been attacking targets in the city all week and on Sunday morning they returned, dropping nine Paveway bombs onto a military operations room and later destroying a battle tank on the outskirts of the city.
Mehdi and his men were billeted in a school outside Zawiyah as the battle for Tripoli loomed. They took refuge from the fierce heat under palm trees, sticking sniper scopes to their assault rifles or cleaning their weapons for the fight.
At mid-morning last Sunday came the move they had spent months preparing for. Rolling out of the school gates in gun-mounted pick-up trucks and minivans, they joined the main coastal highway heading east towards the capital.
Mehdi’s blue Toyota Land Cruiser weaved in and out of the bullet casings, shell holes and burnt-out cars that bore testament to the fierce fighting around Zawiyah.
The sound of mortars boomed up ahead as the first wave of rebels came within range of Gadaffi’s artillery units stationed on a gentle rise in the land. Soon ambulances hurried back down the highway carrying the dead and wounded.
The fighting intensified as the rebels neared the heavily fortified headquarters of the elite Khamis Brigade — once commanded by a Gadaffi son — protecting the western approaches to Tripoli.
Two Nato bombs dropped on the barracks sent up swirls of black smoke. Rocket-propelled grenades exploded in small black puffs above the headquarters, signalling a retreat. Hundreds of Libyan soldiers abandoned their positions and fled east.
They took with them ammunition trucks and seven Grad missile launchers but left behind mortar rounds, rockets, anti-tank missile launchers, tanks and pick-up trucks with which the rebels reinforced themselves before speeding up the highway towards Tripoli.
As the sun set, Mehdi’s brigade paused to break their fast. Some had not drunk water or eaten food since the morning because of Ramadan. They sat on pavements littered with bullet casings, stuffing couscous and meat into their mouths as others knelt to pray.
“We will have our breakfast in Gadaffi’s palace,” said Haitam Fighi, who studied telecommunications in Leeds.
As night fell on Sunday, the rebels surged into Tripoli. They were greeted as heroes by crowds who flocked onto the streets, burning tyres, igniting firecrackers and stamping on posters of Gadaffi. But there were reports of armed Gadaffi loyalists roaming in taxis. The rebels ordered residents to stay inside unless they had weapons to defend themselves.
The Tripoli Brigade occupied a school in the city. Gunfire crackled through the night. Tracer rounds arced above the city as Nato warplanes circled. The deep thud of mortars rumbled in the distance.
Despite rebel claims that Tripoli had been liberated, Gadaffi forces still controlled strategic landmarks: the airport, the palace and government buildings. Saif al-Islam Gadaffi, groomed to succeed his father and reportedly under arrest, showed up at a hotel full of journalists claiming the rebels had fallen into a trap.
By Monday night the rebels’ hold on the streets was secure enough for Mehdi to plan the assault on Bab al-Aziziya.
At midday on Tuesday he jumped in the back of his Land Cruiser in the courtyard of the school and led his convoy south through the streets at high speed towards Gadaffi’s compound. Paul and I rode in the back of one of the trucks.
As we neared the palace Paul, who spent seven weeks photographing the bloody battle for Misrata earlier in the war, spotted the red and yellow flags of the heavily armed and experienced Misratan rebels.
They had punched through Gadaffi’s lines to the east of the city in the nick of time to reinforce Mehdi’s light assault force. Misratan gunners poured long bursts of automatic fire into the palace from a patch of high ground. Gadaffi’s troops retorted with sniper fire, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machinegun fire.
Mehdi’s men passed around dates and drank milk while he discussed the battle plan with his senior commanders. Then he asked if he could borrow my satellite phone to call his wife, Eftaima, in Dublin.
He spoke to her for five minutes: one last call to his family before he commanded the assault on Gadaffi’s palace. After he had finished, he handed the phone back. “Speak to my wife,” he said, grinning. Bullets zipped overhead and rocket-propelled grenades exploded against buildings, but Mehdi’s wife sounded calm.
“Sounds like you’re right in the middle of it,” she said in a soft Irish accent. “You don’t know how proud I am of my husband. This is a moment he’s dreamt of.”
When I hung up the phone I asked Mehdi what he had said to his wife. He broke down and turned his back to face the wall, placing his hand against the concrete to compose himself. He turned back to face me and said: “When this is finished I will return home to my family. I miss them so much.”
For an hour the two sides appeared to be locked in a stalemate. Each barrage of rebel fire from the maze of alleyways around the compound was returned with equal force from the Libyan army within.
To break the deadlock three rebels formed a team, each taking it in turn to fire from the open street. Bullets kicked up dust around their ankles.
A red wrought-iron gate in front of us lit up as explosive rounds from a heavy machinegun inside the palace tore through the rebel position.
Mehdi’s second-in-command, Bashir, from Birmingham, ducked into a street in front of a Gadaffi tank at the northern entrance to the palace and knelt with an RPG launcher on his shoulder. A sniper bullet killed him instantly.
Mohammed Abdul Gasem, 24, tried to drag Bashir’s body behind a wall but immediately came under sniper fire which hit the concrete around him. Another rebel yelled at Elyas, the 17-year-old brother of Abdul Gasem, above the din of gunfire: “Do you know how to shoot an RPG?”
Elyas had never shot an RPG in his life, nor was he trained to. But he grabbed the launcher and raced into the middle of the street in full view of the sniper. Bullets kicked up around him as he knelt on the ground and launched the grenade round at the watchtower 50 yards in front of him. He watched in shock as it sailed through the narrow slit and hit the sniper square in the chest.
Loading a second round into the barrel, Elyas fired at a sniper in another guard tower. His grenade round slammed into the wall just below the slit and the sniper’s rifle fell silent.
By now we were taking heavy casualties. At least 16 rebels had been killed. Mehdi had been hit in the ankle. My helmet had saved my life. Paul tied a tourniquet on a rebel who had lost an arm.
Nonetheless, Mehdi’s men advanced. Small teams provided covering fire while others sprinted forwards to assault the remaining sniper positions. With the snipers dead, the palace defences were falling. Rebel fighters surged through the gates, racing down the main road to the inner perimeter wall, which was breached with a tractor.
Gadaffi forces fled south through the compound pursued by rebel pick-up trucks that raced through the hole in the wall, weaving among palm trees across the green lawn.
Mehdi’s men stared in elated disbelief at the scenes unfolding around them. Black smoke billowed from Gadaffi’s bedouin tents in the distance.
The rebels ran through the smoke towards his residence, storming the building as mortars, RPGs and heavy machinegun fire continued to boom and snap past them.
Inside the building there was, of course, no sign of Gadaffi, but Mehdi and 15 of his men sat down on sofas inside one of the rooms and wiped the sweat from their brows.
“I thought paintballing was scary,” grinned Ahmed Khalid, 21, who grew up in Birmingham. “You know when you want something so badly it becomes a fantasy. When it does happen you don’t know what to do.”
“I can’t talk now,” said Mehdi, reloading the magazine of his assault rifle.
“You don’t know how I feel. Now Libya is free. Everything will be right again. Thank you France, Qatar, Obama, Cameron,” he added, with tears filling his eyes.
Chaos was slowly enveloping the lawn outside. Jubilation turned to dismay. Rebel fighters from other units had joined the hundreds of civilian looters, pillaging new weapons from an open ammunition dump on the other side of Gadaffi’s residence.
Mehdi’s men looked on in horror. The 10 men they had positioned to guard the ammunitrion dump had been overrun by hundreds of civilians who had flooded the grounds upon hearing the news that the palace had fallen.
One man found a jewelencrusted Samurai sword and waved it above his head. Others tied a green rope around the famous statue of a giant gold fist crushing an American fighter plane and tried to yank it down with a pick-up truck. It failed to budge. A leopardskin throne inlaid with mother of pearl was smashed to pieces.
Soon civilians carrying shiny new assault rifles, handguns still in their boxes, briefcases of sniper rifles and crates of ammunition began to flock back towards the entrance of the palace.
“This is the start of the misery. This is Gadaffi’s last gift to the Libyans,” said one of Mehdi’s fighters who grew up in Liverpool.
“Now there will be an entire city armed with weapons. The tyrant said he would create chaos if we entered Tripoli. This is what he meant.”
Suddenly a horde of distracted rebels and looting civilians raced back through the gates leading to the arms depot. Libyan soldiers had regrouped and counterattacked, sending people fleeing in every direction across the lawn. They tripped over each other as pick-up trucks screeched past them.
Mehdi left the palace with a small band of his men, confident that other rebel forces could mop up the remnants of the Libyan army in the compound.
He went straight to his rundown neighbourhood in Tripoli, which he had not seen for 17 years, to greet relatives. At the house of his second-in-command, he broke the news to the dead man’s family.
Having fought successfully for the palace, Mehdi’s mission now was to fight to maintain order. But factional rivalries were surfacing.
On Wednesday he drove to a luxury seaside resort built by Saif al-Islam Gadaffi. He found it under the control of a commander whose men had already looted the home of Hannibal, another of Gadaffi’s sons. They rifled through the belongings of Hannibal’s wife, finding 50 pairs of designer stilettos and dozens of Gucci and Versace dresses.
Mehdi was furious that the rebels had trashed the place. An argument broke out with the other commander before Mehdi stormed away in a rage.
This weekend he and his men say they are desperate for order to be imposed on the city as heavy clashes continue to break out between Gadaffi forces and rebels inside Tripoli.
“There are no police here, so the rebels have to control everything. There’s still fighting going on so it’s taking a lot of manpower,” said one of Mehdi’s commanders.
“There’s a serious threat that the city could end up divided among the rebel groups.”
A humanitarian crisis is rapidly developing inside the city as rebels strugle to bring in supplies of food, water and medicine.
Mehdi has control over part of the airport in the hope that he can persuade agencies or the United Nations to fly in aid. He also has to keep his eye on the battlefield. His key adviser believes Gadaffi is trying to lure the rebels into the desert by gradually retreating into territory controlled by the Warfalla tribe, which is one of the largest in Libya and still professes its support for Gadaffi.
Small units of loyalists have been left inside Tripoli to bog down the rebel advance in urban fighting while Gadaffi’s army pull back to the town of Bin Walid, protecting the Libyan leader and his sons as they move from safe house to safe house behind Libyan army lines. Nato is monitoring Libyan troop movements along the roads towards Bin Walid, where the rebels believe Gadaffi still has about 6,000 troops.
“He wants the rebels to fight in the Warfalla areas,” said the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He wants to suck us into a tribal war with them.” Rebels still stationed in Misrata need to move fast to cut the retreat. “That is what we’re working on.”
Mehdi has moved the headquarters of his brigade, which has now swollen from a small band to 6,000 men, into the airport on the outskirts of Tripoli where he can stockpile captured ammunition and reorganise his troops.
The triumph of the rebels’ lightning assault on Tripoli and the seizure of large parts of the city has been dampened by apprehension among a number of the rebel commanders.
Some of them, including Mehdi, fear that the most spectacular victory of the “Arab spring” could pave the way for factionalism inside the capital as rebel commanders from different parts of the country struggle to grab power by seizing assets before the rebels’ political leaders step in.
“Gadaffi will look to exploit weaknesses in the rebel lines,” the adviser said. “We may see car bombs and guerrilla attacks as he looks for a way out of the mess he finds himself in. We still face a long road.”