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Reporter's Notebook: As Battle For Tripoli Rages, Libyan Exiles Celebrate An Early Victory

Women and children, mostly Libyans, gather outside the Libyan Embassy in Tunis on August 21, where the insurgents' flag was hoisted on the roof of the building.
TUNIS -- The battle to depose Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi has yet to be won, but his former subjects in neighboring Tunisia are already celebrating victory.

As reports of scattered gun battles across Tripoli continued, cheering Libyans took to the streets of the Tunisian capital, waving the horizontal red, black, and green flag, that of the short-lived Kingdom of Libya that the anti-Qaddafi rebels have adopted as their own. With the "Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya," as Qaddafi is officially known, somewhere in hiding, many young Libyan men residing in Tunisia are preparing to join the front lines.

"The morale is high," said Hitham Bouishai, a 24-year-old native of Tripoli who defected from his position as a border guard not long after the uprising began in February. He joined the rebels and fought against Qaddafi's army for several months before crossing the border into Tunisia last week. When I met him on August 22, he was organizing a 3 a.m. convoy of 135 cars that would ferry Libyan exiles from Tunisia to Tripoli.

Young men like him are alternately inspired and horrified by the rumors they hear about what's happening in their homeland. The news that rebels had seized an arms depot in the northwestern city of Misurata, replete with "1 million Kalashnikovs" from the former Soviet Union, gives him hope that Qaddafi's last stand is about to end. He swears to me that rebels found a human meat grinder in the home of Abdullah al-Sanussi, Qaddafi's brother-in-law and the head of the Libyan intelligence service.

In waging an uprising against Qaddafi, Libyans took the lead from their Tunisian neighbors, who had launched a successful revolt against their own dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, just a month prior. A walk along Tunisia's windy streets, listening in on the conversations being had in the city's boisterous cafes and teahouses, revealed that the ongoing situation in Libya was much on the minds of the people who lit the flame of what has now become known as the "Arab Spring."

Last night's celebrations are a continuation of those which began late on August 21, when rebels made their final push on Tripoli and seized control of most of its neighborhoods. That evening in Tunis, a massive crowd demonstrated outside the Libyan Embassy here to celebrate Tunisia's formal recognition of the National Transitional Council as the legitimate government of Libya, draping the building with the rebel flag.

Repaying Qatari 'Traitors'

Though Qaddafi's regime is teetering on the edge of collapse, the dictator recently reached into his old bag of tricks by attempting to pull off a feat of international terrorism, a field in which he used to lead, what with the bombings of Pan Am 103 or a Berlin discotheque patronized by U.S. servicemen. The jubilation here in Tunis stalled briefly when news emerged late on August 22 that Qaddafi had dispatched one of his soldiers, Abd Erazzak Al-Rajhi, to bomb an Arab embassy in Tunis. Rajhi turned himself in to Tunisian officials, who announced the news at a press conference.

Though the Tunisian authorities did not reveal which country's embassy was the target, word on the streets of Tunis is that Qaddafi wanted to send a final message to Qatar, owner of the Al-Jazeera cable network that has relentlessly and sympathetically covered the Libyan uprising. Libyan state television ­- when it was still controlled by Qaddafi -­ frequently referred to the Qataris as "traitors."

In El-Nasr city, a trendy suburb north of Tunis, the streets filled with cheering Libyans. As honking cars pass by, young Libyan girls wave flags while yelling, "Zenga, zenga!" ironically echoing Qaddafi's promise to hunt down his citizens "alley by alley." One woman, who sits exhausted on the sidewalk, tells me that she came to Tunis from the eastern city of Benghazi, via Cairo. She fled in February, right after the revolution began, with her 10-year-old daughter, Fatma. Her husband is fighting with the rebels and, while Benghazi has long been a rebel stronghold, she cannot afford to return home. She has been living in a cheap hotel, cared for by a charity run by Libyan exiles.

I ask her what she wants to become of Qaddafi. She looks at me and makes a throat-slitting motion with her hand. Fatma walks up and says, "He should suffer first."

'We Are Better Than Him'

Mohammed Abukhres is a 59-year-old Libyan ethnic Berber who has spent half his life living in the United States, some of those years as a caregiver for the mentally handicapped and most of them working odd jobs. "I used to take freedom for granted in the States," he tells me. He is missing several teeth and probably hasn't showered in several days, but he has a wry sense of humor and speaks perfect English.

An early student activist against Qaddafi, he came to appreciate his American freedom even more when he returned to Libya in 2006 to care for his dying mother. The government seized his passport at the airport and Abukhres ultimately lost his permanent Green Card status as a result. While he desperately wanted to return to the United States, "I think things happen for a reason," he told me. "I'm happy I was in Libya when this shit started."

When protests broke out in Tripoli against Qaddafi in mid-February, Abukhres immediately joined the crowds. "I never felt as proud of myself as I did when I came out and protested. I saw people drop dead before my eyes." Since escaping to Tunisia in May, he has helped raise money to buy food and medicine for fellow Libyan refugees under the auspices of an organization called the February 17th Gathering, which commemorates the day when the Libyan uprising began.

"I want him to be prosecuted in a democratic, just way," he tells me when I ask him what should be done with Qaddafi if he is found alive. "The bad part of me wants to see him shot. But we are better than him."