This is the first of a two-part post. Read the second post, Paladins of the Desert II: The final war against the Bedouin, here.
The Italian General, Pietro Badoglio arrived in Tripoli in January 1929 after reluctantly accepting the position of first joint governor of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Badoglio had requested from Mussolini five years to quash the remaining resistance and unite and develop the territories. While he would reside and preside over Tripoli, Badoglio selected as the his vice-governor of Cyrenaica the loyal but inexperienced General Domenico Siciliani. Badoglio issued a widely circulated proclamation on his arrival to the territories in which he promised to pardon any remaining Libyan resistance fighters for laying down their weapons and making a full submission to the Italian forces, but also threatened bitter repression for those refusing to surrender, warning: “I will wage war with powerful systems and means, which they will long remember. No rebel will be left in peace, neither he or his family no his herds nor his heirs. I will destroy everything, men and things”. Thousands of copies of the proclamation were printed and dropped by aircraft over wide areas.
Despite a series of successful raids and ambushes on Italian troops by the Libyan resistance in March 1929, Badoglio did not renounce his programme of pacification, and later that month allowed Mohammed Reda as-Sanussi to return back to Libya from his forced exile on the island of Ustica. Badoglio sought to attempt to negotiate a ceasefire with Reda as-Sanussi and other high ranking commanders of the Libyan forces. There is little information about these secret negotiations, however sources exists for the Sidi al-Rhouma Summit. This series of meetings between Badoglio, Siciliani, and Omar al-Mukhtar and his mujahideen took place in June 1929. Mukhtar agreed to a temporary ceasefire as the first stage of agreements to restore Sanussi authority in the region and preserve its armed forces. According to Mukhtar, he had agreed on a truce only for two months, during which time he expected negotiations with the Badoglio and the Italians to continue. Badoglio however wrote to Mussolini in the following days suggesting that Mukhtar had agreed to a complete and unconditional submission, going as far as to claim Mukhtar had declared to him the following: “Cyrenaica enters, from today, a new era, that of peace. I am at the disposal of the government”.
Badoglio’s pursuit of peace did not stem from any deep conviction or desire for peace, neither did he genuinely envisage sharing power with the Sanussiya. Certainly, he had not conceded to any written, formal agreements with Mukhtar and his men, nor negotiated with Idris as-Sanussi for fear of recognising Idris’ political authority. Badoglio saw a temporary armistice as a more pliable and effective way of quashing the remaining strongholds of Libyan resistance than might be achieved by armed force. His misleading guarantee to his superiors in Rome that Mukhtar and the mujahideen had offered a final and unconditional surrender enabled Badoglio to carry out his policy of negotiation without interference. Rather than negotiating a genuine treaty of power sharing, Bagoglio and Siciliani were planning to shatter the Sanussi front by encouraging internal discord with offers of rewards and promises. They had hoped this would eventually pave the way for the weary Gebel populations’ submission, and complete Italian rule.
Omar al-Mukhtar, although continuing to observe the truce, continued also to receive taxes from the Gebel population. These taxes maintained his forces, and affirmed Sanussi sovereignty. By mid-August 1929, Siciliani was forced to admit that their programme of pacification was proving “laborious”. Badoglio and Siciliani continued to reach out to Mohammed Reda as-Sanussi and his son Hassan (both recently repatriated from their forced exile in Ustica), to negotiate a peace agreement. While the father and son were seemingly inclined to accept a treaty of peace that compromised the Sanussi led resistance, Mukhtar refused to consider any treaty that might compromise the Gebel tribes’ independence, and remained prepared to renew the struggle against the Italian forces
Mukhtar and his mujahideen risked losing ground if they continued to wait for the Italians to make formal pledges in their apparent quest for peace. And so, on October 20th 1929, faced with new Italian attempts to protract the armistice without offering adequate political guarantees, Omar al-Mukhtar announced that he would not accept further adjournments, and the Libyan resistance would resume their armed struggle to resist the Italian forces on October 24th. In his proclamation, Mukhtar emphasised that it was as a result of the Italians’ refusal to recognise the Emir Idris’ authority, and their attempts to protract negotiations that he was forced to denounce the armistice. He also suggests that negotiations between the Italian forces and any senior member of the Sanussiya besides Idris, were not were conducted in the interests of the Libyan people:
The armistice is now on the point of expiring and I have received no answer from the Italian government regarding its proposal to get in touch with our Emir Sayyid Mohammed Idris as-Sanussi. I intend, therefore, to resume the war and to take no notice of any conversation and of any intermediary, not even if they were those of the Sanussi family, unless the choice is made as a result of the nation’s trust. But I do not understand why the Italian government shrinks from making contact with the above-mentioned leader, knowing very well that it alone has the power to make and destroy. If it were truly committed to pursuing peace, it would not hesitate for an instant to get in touch with him. Let every fighter know, therefore, that the sole aim of the Italian government is to stir up discords and plots among us in order to destroy our bonds and break up our union, and to be able to prise away and snatch from us all our legitimate rights, as has already happened many times. But thanks to God, they have not managed to do any of this. Let the whole world bear witness that our intentions towards the Italian government are noble, that we have no other aim than to claim our freedom and that the objective of the Italians is to repress any national movement which aims at the reawakening and progress of the Tripolitanian people. We are now defending our very existence and are sacrificing our blood in order to redeem our country and to achieve the ends that we have mentioned. Nevertheless, we undertake that such a situation will only last until the individuals who are set upon using violence against us change their ways, start out on the right path and treat us with fairness rather than with flattery and deceit.
Italian sources often ignore Mukhtar’s proclamation and accuse him and his men of treason. Hostilities did not recommence immediately on the denunciation of the armistice, but on November 8th when an Italian patrol was ambushed at Gasr Benigdem, leaving four Italian soldiers dead. Although it was thought Mukhtar was not directly responsible for this surprise attack, Siciliani’s reaction was prompt, resuming the arrest of “ex-rebels”, and shooting anyone in the Gebel offering resistance. Siciliani writes to Badoglio the day after the attack: “it is now useless to fool ourselves: for as long as Omar al-Mukhtar is here, we cannot bring about peace in Cyrenaica”.
There was a further attack on November 16th. Soldiers of Omar al-Mukhtar were surprised at Gasr Mragh by a coordinated manoeuvre of Italian troops which forced them to scatter, and lost them men. While the Italian forces continued to underestimate the depth of the roots of the Libyan resistance, the mujahideen retreated into a “armed neutrality” in the aftermath of this attack, allowing Mukhtar to quickly regain control of the Gebel with the support of the great majority of the population. The soldiers of Brahasa-Dorsa, who had fought under the command of Hassan al-Reda, were roused to rebel against Hassan (who continued in his refusal to return to battle), and took up position alongside Mukhtar. Mukhtar’s control of the Cyrenaican hinterlands was such that any Italian soldier venturing out of their garrison was sure to be attacked and captured by Libyan resistance forces. The Italian General and former Governor of Tripolitania, Emilio De Bono, dismayed at the direction and pace of Italy’s programme of pacification, and who since November was urging Badoglio to replace the seemingly incompetent Siciliani, wrote again to Badoglio in January 1930 announcing: “My opinion is that we shall now have to resort to concentration camps”. Aware of his declining position and pressure to replace him, Siciliani issued a proclamation to the Libyan resistance in January 1930 which he ends with an excerpt from a letter sent to him from Badoglio: “Remember that Omar al-Mukhtar requires two things: firstly, an excellent information service; secondly, a nice surprise with aircraft and mustard-gas bombs. I hope that such bombs will be sent to him as soon as possible”. Badoglio repeatedly reassured De Bono that Siciliani had his unconditional confidence, and urged him to delay any decision regarding replacing the vice-governor. Despite Badoglio’s reassurances, De Bono proceeded to persuade Mussolini to appoint General Rodolfo Graziani as the vice-Governor of Cyrenaica. Badoglio kept the faithful Siciliani as the commander of Italian troops in Tripolitania; the position left vacant on Graziani’s successful reconquest of the colony.
Butcher Fezzan, as Graziani was known in Cyrenaica, had conquered southern Tripolitania and Fezzan, and was now tasked with weakening the Cyrenaican rebellion, and laying the ground for the final crushing of the Libyan resistance. He writes to Badoglio in April 1930: “I see the situation in Cyrenaica as comparable to a poisoned organism which produces, in one part of the body, a festering bubo. The bubo in this instance is the soldiers of Omar al-Mukhtar, which is the result of a wholly infected situation. To heal this sick body it is necessary to destroy the origin of the malady rather than its effects”.