MISRATA, Libya — The five rebel gunmen crept tensely along the side road's shuttered storefronts, past the dark furniture shop with the broken windows and the street lamps decorated with plastic flowers. Perpendicular to them was Tripoli Street, the heart of Misrata, where Moammar Gadhafi's snipers hide in office buildings and rake the city with bullets.
Their feet crunched the concrete and metal debris scattered on the ground, but the men were otherwise silent. They had done this before.
At the intersection with Tripoli, one of the men darted into the traffic circle, now filled with sand berms, truck frames, tires and a torched tank. He lunged to one knee and began firing, shooting again and again at a building down the block.
His colleagues pivoted around the corner and sprayed protective fire, not wincing at the bullets whistling by.
Shielded, the first man raced back to the side street. His companions quickly swung back around the corner, all of them temporarily out of harm's way. There, they pumped their fists and hoisted their weapons, all of them buzzed by the skirmish.
The men of the so-called Shahid group had just fought another small battle in the ongoing guerrilla war in Misrata, the sole western city holding out against Gadhafi's forces. This band, and others like it, has been integral to the city's defense.
When eastern Libya erupted into anti-Gadhafi protests in February, Misrata and other cities in the west quickly followed. But when Gadhafi answered with gunfire, crushing protests in the smaller western city of Zawiya, Misrata residents vowed not to suffer the same fate.
By March, this city of 500,000, the third-largest in Libya, had mobilized, with its own secretive city leadership and the emergence of young gangs to guard Misrata's neighborhoods.
The bands, each with a commander, have quickly evolved, coordinating the supply of weapons and trucks, defending rebel-held areas and answering emergency battle calls. In their David-vs.-Goliath fight, they have shown aplomb and ingenuity, sneaking up on a tank and attaching a bomb to it, ambushing soldiers from rooftops with heavy machine guns, even burning small buildings with Gadhafi's snipers lurking inside.
Their most inventive act may have been partitioning Tripoli Street with sand-filled trucks into three sections. Now Gadhafi's snipers are holed up in a life insurance building, post office and a trade bank; from there they open fire on the surrounding areas.
But with daily shelling and with the city isolated, Misrata and its gangs fear they are living on borrowed time. The pressure builds by the day. Bread and fuel lines grow longer, and more Libyans are thinking of leaving the city. The city's pool of men is limited. Streets have been unofficially renamed for those who have died on their pavement.
All of the fighters know that, at some point, their hand-me-down and captured weapons could run out and the shrinking number of fighters could be overrun. They wish NATO troops would help them flush out Gadhafi's fighters and destroy the antiaircraft guns, mortars and artillery that hammer Misrata. They've asked. Except for a blunt "no" from the United States, the response has been equivocal.
So they fight on.
These improvised gangs devoted to the community's survival are the equivalent of neighborhood watch groups on steroids. Many are family members and longtime friends, with ties that go back years; others are strangers who have coalesced over the last five weeks into fighting units. Most are in their teens, 20s and 30s.
The weapons they own are a treasure won by looting abandoned militia barracks and by plundering the assault rifles of defeated Gadhafi fighters. When one rebel wins a better weapon, he hands down his old rifle to a new recruit. If a foot soldier dies, his weapon is passed on to another fighter. Every bullet and every life counts in this war, a war in which the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against the people of Misrata.
Here off Tripoli Street, the Shahid group is intent on harassing Gadhafi fighters. Like each militia, the Shahid group goes by the name of its leader, Khalid Shahid. His fighters describe him as a 37-year-old who gathered weapons and vehicles and quickly gained a following.
The Shahid men have proved quick studies of guerrilla tactics. They coordinate by word of mouth and by radio with other militias, most ranging from 20 to 60 men, and with the city's military operations room. One militia on Tripoli Street is called the Head, another Khatiba and another Abu Jihad. The militias have developed radio code names for the enemy: Tanks are "cockroaches," Gadhafi's fighters are "ants."
It is the family and neighborhood ties that keep the Shahid group and other units together — that and the camaraderie forged in the trenches.
Radwan Bilal, 19, is typical of the fighters. He found like-minded men who wanted to take on Gadhafi. Soon he was one of the original seven who gathered around Shahid. The group quickly ballooned to more than 30.
At the beginning of March, Bilal joined Shahid and an informal group of rebels stalking a Gadhafi paramilitary unit that had stopped to buy supplies on Tripoli Street. The rebels blocked the intersections and overpowered the men, taking them captive; Bilal was given his first Kalashnikov.
Others came to Tripoli Street at the beginning of March because they saw it as the biggest battleground in the city. They stayed, and now the men there are family in this fight.
Abu Bakr Zain joined the Shahid group on Tripoli Street in this way. First he trailed another fighter, offering him help with supplies. When his friend took a rocket-propelled grenade from a Gadhafi fighter, he offered his old weapon to Zain. From there, Zain's skills grew. Soon after, he said, he used a borrowed machine gun to kill four Gadhafi fighters from a roof.
Gadhafi's loyalists fired off a tank round at the building, but he was already on the move.
"Street fighting taught me never stay in one place too long," Zain said.