In less than three weeks, an inchoate opposition in Libya, one of the world's most isolated countries, has cobbled together the semblance of a transitional government, fielded a ragtag rebel army and portrayed itself to the West and Libyans as an alternative to Col. Muammar el-Qadhafi's four decades of freakish rule.

But events this week have tested the viability of an opposition that has yet to coalesce, even as it solicits help from abroad to topple Colonel Qadhafi.

Rebels were dealt military setbacks in Zawiyah and Ras Lanuf on March 8, part of a strengthening government counteroffensive.

Meanwhile, the opposition council's leaders contradicted one another publicly. The opposition's calls for foreign aid have amplified divisions over intervention. And provisional leaders warn that a humanitarian crisis may loom as people's needs overwhelm fledgling local governments.

‘I am Libya'

“I am Libya,” Colonel Qaddafi boasted after the uprising erupted. It was standard fare for one of the world's most outrageous leaders — megalomania so pronounced that it sounded like parody. It underlined, though, the greatest and perhaps fatal obstacle facing the rebels here — forging a substitute to Colonel Qadhafi in a state that he embodied.

“We've found ourselves in a vacuum,” Mustafa Gheriani, an acting spokesman for the provisional leadership, said on March 8 in Benghazi, the rebel capital. “Instead of worrying about establishing a transitional government, all we worry about are the needs — security, what people require, where the uprising is going. Things are moving too fast.”

“This is all that's left,” he said, lifting his cell phone, “and we can only receive calls.”

The question of the opposition's capabilities is likely to prove decisive to the fate of the rebellion, which appears outmatched by government forces and troubled by tribal divisions that the government, reverting to form, has sought to exploit. Rebel forces are fired more by enthusiasm than experience. The political leadership has virtually begged the international community to recognise it, but it has yet to marshal opposition forces abroad or impose its authority in regions it nominally controls.

Organisers acknowledge the chaos but contend that there is no one else to talk to.

‘We require help'

“We require support, whether it's military or otherwise, we require help,” Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, the deputy leader of the provisional leadership, told a news conference in Benghazi. “The international community has to assume its duty at this point.”

While the mood remains ebullient in parts of eastern Libya, largely because few believe that Colonel Qadhafi can reconquer a region that long seethed under his rule, it is more sullen in Benghazi, a Mediterranean port and Libya's second largest city.

At the courthouse that has served as a government headquarters, bedlam reigned on March 8, as gusts of wind slammed doors shut and shattered a window. Nationalist music blared over hurried conversations that unfolded beneath cartoons lampooning Colonel Qadhafi.

Security has begun to deteriorate, with gunfire echoing in the distance, some robberies and assailants' throwing a grenade at a hotel housing foreign journalists.

At the front, three and a half hours away, rebels sought to recover from a government offensive that forced them from Bin Jawwad and sent them reeling toward Ras Lanuf, a strategic refinery town. The government also appeared to deal setbacks to the rebels in Zawiyah, a rebel-held town near Tripoli, and Misratah, a strategic coastal city.

With momentum seeming to shift, the rebels face the prospect of being outgunned and outnumbered in what increasingly looks like a mismatched civil war.

“They don't understand,” said Sami Tujan, an officer trying, unsuccessfully, to command rebels near a checkpoint. “They're a big target.”

Aging but effective weapons

The rebels won their initial battles with an assortment of aging but effective weapons, and a seemingly plentiful supply of ammunition, including some from North Korea and Russia. On the beds of Toyota pickup trucks, many of the soldiers mounted an old Soviet heavy machine gun, which they referred to by the 14.5-millimeter rounds it fires. The guns are bundled together and used as antiaircraft weapons, and may have been responsible for downing a government warplane earlier this week near Ras Lanuf. Men holding rocket-propelled grenade launchers complete the patchwork rebel air-defence system.

At the front lines at Ras Lanuf, the opposition forces relied on more rudimentary tracking methods to spot planes: a lanky man standing on top of a large dump truck with a pair of binoculars, along with hundreds of sets of ears of eager volunteers.

Even then, the government's Soviet-made planes mostly operated with impunity. Government forces have also marshalled artillery, better tanks and helicopters that the rebels cannot match.

On March 8, as government forces gathered near Ras Lanuf, rebels strategised and argued among themselves, complaining that they did not have enough rocket-propelled grenades and that a spy was among them.

Logistics, namely resupplying the front, has proved to be a challenge for the rebels. So has leadership. Small units of men who said they belonged to specialised branches of Libya's army joined the fight, including members of special forces units and paratroopers. Some senior officers are also seen at the front, but many of the rebels are bankers, policemen and the unemployed, who have formed enthusiastic but somewhat hapless brigades.

“Apart from a few mechanised units in Benghazi and Tobruk, and a few armoured battalions near Bayda, rebel-controlled areas lack any substantial hardware with which to take on the pro-Qaddafi stronghold of Tripoli,” said a report on March 3 by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The pro-Qaddafi regions are also well garrisoned with artillery, antiaircraft and mechanised formations,” it added. After government authority collapsed in much of eastern Libya, residents set up what they call local councils of varying numbers of representatives — three in Darnah, six in Bayda. Theoretically, each is supposed to send a representative to Benghazi, where the opposition has set up a group called the Provisional Transitional National Council of Libya, a kind of state in waiting. Composed of 30 representatives, it is led by Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, a former Justice Minister and perhaps the sole figure who enjoys national support.

Its authority remains tentative, a point acknowledged by those involved. “We didn't have any authority, of course; we just gave ourselves authority,” said Iman Bugaighis, a spokeswoman for the council. “Nobody has any political experience.”

The council has barely begun to address the major choices the rebels need to make: whether to support foreign intervention and whether to negotiate in any way with the government.

The council has pleaded for a no-flight zone, still being debated by the West, but rebel leaders in Darnah warned that they would oppose any foreign interference with arms.

In his news conference, Mr. Ghoga ruled out any talks with the government, though Mr. Abdel-Jalil, theoretically his superior, told an Arabic satellite channel that if Colonel Qadhafi left in 72 hours, no one would pursue him.

“How do we talk about something that hasn't been proposed?” Mr. Ghoga asked.

Partition?

Opposition leaders also differ on whether to formally declare a transitional government, underlining fears that it may lay the groundwork for Libya's partition. Two of its representatives met European officials on March 8, but the council has yet to unite with disparate, divided opposition groups abroad, activists say.

“There is no communication between opposition groups and no leadership for the opposition,” said Adem Arqiq, an exiled Muslim Brotherhood member in Dublin. “There are opposition groups in Europe, in the United States and in some Arab countries, but each works for himself. There were efforts to unify them, but they failed.”

For days, convoys of aid, many from Islamic relief organisations, have barrelled across the Egyptian border, helping stanch shortages, in a remarkable show of organisation and solidarity. Mr. Gheriani estimated that Benghazi had six months of supplies, and the United Nations was sending more aid to the port. But in the hinterland, where local councils are still struggling to reconstitute bureaucracies that collapsed last month, some worry a crisis is approaching.

“No one knows how long supplies will last — a week, two weeks,” said Ahmed Boughrara, an engineer and organiser in Bayda. “Then it's going to be a huge crisis.”

Some have expressed a more lurking concern: that in a protracted fight, it may grow difficult to maintain the unity that the opposition has sought to bridge religious and tribal divides.

“The longer this conflict lasts, the more people are going to be radicalised,” said Ibrahim el-Gadi, a hydrogeologist in Darnah, whose son was wounded in a fight with government forces. “We are not now, but it will be so if this conflict doesn't finish.” ( David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Nada Bakri from Beirut, Lebanon.) — © New York Times News Service

The question of its capabilities is likely to prove decisive to the fate of the rebellion, which appears outmatched by government forces.