TARHOUNA, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi's green flags still fly proudly above the main street in this bastion of support for his crumbling regime. Many here still openly pledge allegiance to the longtime Libyan leader.
And don't even ask about the rebels, who ostensibly control the small market town but mostly keep to the outskirts.
"We felt safe with Gadhafi, but not now, not with the rats," Hassan Sultan, 35, an unemployed laborer, said of the rebels.
Tarhouna's loyalty is a stark sign of the problems the rebels face as they try to bring stability – and eventually a new government – to a country ruled by Gadhafi for more than four decades. Residents here say many of their neighbors have hidden weapons, leftovers from government programs to arm civilians against attackers, and some say they believe there could eventually be attacks on the rebels.
Because while Gadhafi was detested by many Libyans as a dictator who enriched his family but left much of the country in poverty, he also earned support by nurturing particular tribes and regions, offering generous government benefits and jobs to those he saw as key supporters.
Sultan, for instance, received about $500 a month in unemployment assistance – more than the salary of a low-level civil servant – but received his last check in July as the rebels pushed closer to Tripoli, the capital.
But in Tarhouna, residents say their loyalty runs far deeper than the next welfare check. The town, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, was widely seen as a Gadhafi favorite, and its dominant tribe – also called Tarhouna – holds many positions in the Libyan military.
"It had nothing to do with money," said Jafer Abdel Sadik, 21, who still sells the once-ubiquitous green flags of the Gadhafi regime in his mobile phone shop, where one wall was decorated with a large poster of the former dictator. "Under Gadhafi, we lived peacefully and were secure."
Despite such talk, Libya's emerging new government keenly fears a repeat of the mistakes of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein's supporters were purged by U.S. forces and quickly turned against the new regime, destabilizing the country for years.
Rebel spokesman Mahmoud Shammam said that while Gadhafi's key aides and fighters would be prosecuted, his civilian supporters would face no punishment.
"We are going to convince them that they are in the wrong camp, and we will welcome them to come back to the majority and understand that we'd like to build a new Libya," he told reporters.
Zahi Mogherbi, a professor at Garyounis University in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the uprising against Gadhafi began six months ago, said he believes many Gadhafi backers will lay low – but those most closely identified with the regime will likely put up a fight.
"They will resist any attempt to take control away from them until the very end because they don't want to be tried or prosecuted," he said.
Aware of such animosities, Tarhouna's new military commander, Col. Boujela Issawi, has kept the rebel presence in the town to a minimum, apparently to avoid provoking any anger.
His fighters have set up their base at a former military camp a few miles (kilometers) out of town, instead of in Tarhouna itself. On Monday, reporters touring part of the town saw no sign of rebel checkpoints – unlike in Tripoli where cars are stopped by rebel fighters every few hundred yards (meters). Issawi said his forces had made no arrests in the town.
Issawi, a Tarhouna native, also hasn't torn down the green flags dangling over the main street, or painted over the "Moammar Only" graffiti scrawled on many walls.
"It's already obsolete," he said of the symbols of the old regime.
Issawi said the rebels entered Tarhouna on Aug. 24, meeting slight resistance. Since then, he said, he has been negotiating with tribal leaders to ensure cooperation.
On Monday, several men waited at the base's main entrance – where a wall hanging showing Gadhafi's portrait now serves as a floor mat – to proclaim their allegiance to the new rulers.
"I came here to say that the tribe of Tarhouna is with them," said Hussein Mohammed, 45, a leader of the Al-Abadla, a sub-tribe of about 7,000 people.
Hussein disputed the other residents' views, insisting that townspeople had eagerly awaited the rebels' arrival and had lived in fear under Gadhafi. "Now people can speak freely," he said.
Hussein was speaking where he could not be overheard by any rebels, but it was not clear whether his animosity for Gadhafi was genuine, or if he simply felt it was in his tribe's interests to ally itself to the new victors.
Tarhouna was long known as a Gadhafi stronghold. In the spring, foreign journalists were taken by Gadhafi government minders to Tarhouna to interview civilians undergoing military training to defend the Gadhafi regime. The minders routinely picked towns with strong pro-Gadhafi sentiments to take reporters on supervised trips after the rebellion broke out in mid-February.
Certainly, residents here said Gadhafi took good care of them. Jassem Ali, 32, unemployed for 11 years, said he also received a large monthly aid stipend, along with a $30,000 government house loan.
At the mobile phone shop, three men showed off Gadhafi portraits they had stored on their phones.
But despite such loyalty – and the easy access to weapons – no residents interviewed said they would join in an insurgency.
"I don't like trouble," said Amjad Ramadan, a 29-year-old social worker.
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo and Ben Hubbard in Tripoli, Libya, contributed reporting.