ZAWIYA, Libya (AP) — For three days running, the rallies have been carnival-like affairs with bands, horseback riders and even a camel dyed green. At each gathering, thousands of delirious supporters of Moammar Gadhafi cheered as the brother leader's defiant speeches boomed from massive speakers.
As NATO hammers away at the Libyan leader's defenses and the United States and its allies throw their support behind the rebels, Gadhafi is trying to boost morale in what is left of his nation and show his people he is still strong and his opponents are few.
"These are the millions of Libyan people and the picture is now complete. Who else remains? Less than 100,000 are trapped in Benghazi, Derna and Tobruk," Gadhafi said in one of the speeches, referring to rebel-held cities in the east.
Bolstering that image is all the more pressing after the U.S. and more than 30 nations recognized Gadhafi's enemies during a meeting Friday in Istanbul, potentially freeing up billions in frozen oil money that could be put into rebel hands.
NATO jets destroyed a military storage facility and other targets in Tripoli's eastern outskirts early Sunday, and rebel attacks on the eastern oil city of Brega stretched into their fourth day, with reports of pitched battles in the residential areas.
Rebel spokesman Mohammed al-Rajaly said his forces had liberated the northeastern half of the city and were moving against government forces hold up in the southwestern part.
The latest pro-Gadhafi rally was held Saturday in the shattered city of Zawiya, where outgunned rebels held off government forces for weeks at the start of the rebellion against Gadhafi's four-decade rule in February.
Crowds cheered in the square, lined with buildings scarred by bullets and tank fire and whose interior walls still bear scribbled graffiti calling Gadhafi a dog.
Last week there were demonstrations in Tripoli and the southern city of Sebha and then three in a row starting Thursday, in Ajaylat near the Tunisian border, Zlitan, not far from rebel-held Misrata and then Zawiya.
Each drew up to 10,000 cheering supporters — though Gadhafi described the crowds as millions-strong and sending a message of defiance to NATO and the world. Libya has a population of about 6.5 million.
For foreign journalists, bused to each site and carefully monitored by government minders, it was impossible to tell the sincerity of the screaming crowds in each town or if they were really even from there.
On the road to Zlitan, west of Tripoli, buses and trucks filled with flag-waving supporters sped to the site of Friday's demonstration. At the rally, a man rode through the crowd on a camel dyed green, the color of the Libyan flag.
In Ajaylat on Thursday, some members of the crowd who relentlessly chanted "God, Moammar, Libya and that's it" afterward admitted they had come from Tripoli, an hour and a half drive away.
Zawiya, however, remained the biggest mystery, for in this city of 200,000, residents fought tooth and nail against Gadhafi's forces before it was retaken with heavy weaponry.
Next to the cheering crowds, horsemen in traditional dress gave children rides in a sandy vacant lot where once the mosque stood that townspeople took refuge in before it was bombarded and razed by government forces.
Many townspeople just silently watched the demonstrators in the main square, but declined to speak with journalists. The rally also featured a much heavier security presence than past events.
Above the square loomed an office tower with whole floors scarred by fire and windows gaping open where artillery rounds had slammed into the building.
The floors were littered with broken glass and empty shell casings from the fierce battles fought here to drive out the rebels.
Despite the destruction someone had come through and carefully painted over all the anti-Gadhafi graffiti left inside by rebels.
"Gadhafi is a criminal" and "to hell with Gadhafi and his sons," could still be read through the paint. In one spot, someone had come back after the destruction and written in a magic marker, "Free Zawiya."
Many of the people in the crowds, especially in the other cities, however, seemed truly sincere in their support. Gadhafi has carefully changed the narrative of the struggle from one about a rebellion to a story of foreign aggression against the Libyan people.
"We love Moammar Gadhafi, because he is our father," said Iman Haj, a young woman wearing a headscarf with mirrored sunglasses at the Ajaylat rally. She paused, "I don't know why, but we love him."
Of the rebels, she said: "They aren't Libyans; they are people that don't like Gadhafi who are taking drugs and drinking. He is in our blood," she added, as the crowd surged around her chanting.