JERUSALEM — The armed organizations that are now Moammar Gadhafi's primary defense in Tripoli were designed specifically to counterbalance the influence of Libya's regular military and are likely to "fight to the death" because they have so much to lose, according to experts on Libya in London and Cairo.
That makes the situation developing in Libya far different from the relatively peaceful changes in power that took place in Tunisia and Egypt, and makes it difficult to predict the outcome of the fighting there, the experts agree.
"The Libyan army had been kept deliberately weak for many years," said Charles Gurdon, managing director of the London-based risk assessment firm Menas Associates. "Like many republics in the Arab world, the principal concern was to be overthrown by its own military. So Gadhafi designed a parallel system so that the army didn't represent a parallel threat. That system is loyal to him and the regime."
Jason Pack, a researcher at Oxford who specializes in Libya, said that from the moment he came to power four decades ago, Gadhafi sought to marginalize the military and create his own personal guard.
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Those efforts resulted in three powerful armed groups that are deeply loyal to Gadhafi or his family. They include paramilitary "revolutionary committees" that have been instrumental in enforcing Gadhafi rule for a generation, a 10,000-man traditional military unit known as the 32nd or Khamees Brigade, led by Gadhafi's second-youngest son, and an undetermined number of foreign mercenaries recruited from sub-Saharan African nations.
For all the attention the mercenaries have received in news accounts of the bloodshed there, the mercenaries are probably the least important, the experts agreed. Peck called their numbers "insignificant."
The other two, however, loom large — recruited by Gadhafi from friendly tribes and paid with Gadhafi's personal funds.
"The revolutionary committees have tremendous power in the country. We haven't heard about them today, because they are a paramilitary force, but the revolutionary committees are likely to be roving around Tripoli executing people," Pack said. "They are going to be out when Gadhafi falls. They will not be given a place. They are dead."
Meanwhile, the 32nd or Khamees Brigade is described by U.S. State Department cables, released by the WikiLeaks website, as a relatively well-equipped special forces outfit that, in the words of one cable, is one of the Libyan leader's last-ditch "regime protection units."
The brigade totals about 10,000 men, according to the WikiLeaks cables, with officers that were handpicked by Gadhafi and his sons. They're also thought to be the best equipped, with rocket propelled grenades, anti-tank missiles, and other modern fighting equipment.
The Air Force, as well, was thought to be loyal to Gadhafi — though it remained unclear if it's currently involved in fighting. At least two pilots flew their planes to the Mediterranean island of Malta, where they sought asylum, rather than fire on protesters.
Two key factors are likely to determine whether Gadhafi remains in power, the experts agreed.
The first is the logistical difficulty in overtaking Tripoli, Libya's capital largest city, in the western part of the country.
Lisa Anderson, the president of American University in Cairo and an expert on Libya, said it was no surprise that the rebels have been most effective in seizing control of the country's eastern half. "Most people thought eastern Libya would be easy to extract from Gadhafi's control," she said. "People there have been unhappy with him from decades. "
But moving that rebellion west will be far more difficult, particularly since Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, where he has many loyal followers, lies on Libya's main coastal highway. Without Sirte, the revolutionary groups would be unlikely to mass enough supporters to launch a successful attack on Tripoli, Gurdon said.
The second factor would be how deeply defections sap Gadhafi's circle.
While some high-profile government officials, including Libya's ambassador to the United Nations and Gadhafi's first cousins have already defected, many other key members of the regime haven't.
"At this point, both the opposition and the Gadhafi loyalists understand that there is no surrender. If they surrender they'll be killed, so why surrender?" Anderson said.
That makes it likely that a standoff or stalemate may last for some time.
"If Gadhafi can circle the wagons and have his loyalists protect Tripoli, he can stay alive for a certain time, but he won't be running the country," Anderson said.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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