As Gaddafi’s forces took up positions to defend the capital, “the targeting shifted toward Tripoli over the last four or five days . . . and the target set [in the capital] became larger,” said a senior NATO official, one of several alliance and U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military and intelligence matters.
NATO said airstrikes had hit 22 targets in and around Tripoli on Saturday, with additional strikes Sunday. Most were carried out by NATO and allied aircraft, aided by six armed U.S. Predator drones and satellite imagery on the location and capabilities of government forces.
“We have a good operational picture of where forces are arrayed on the battlefield,” Marine Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said.
Once the rebels began arriving in force, government troops in much of the capital melted away. The rebels have reached “a clear tipping point in Tripoli, rather than a prolonged stalemate,” a senior European diplomat said.
“We are finishing quicker than I think many people were beginning to fear” we would, said the diplomat, referring to rising unease in NATO capitals this summer as the conflict began to drag into its sixth month.
Even as rebels seized control of large swaths of Tripoli, U.S. officials said it was unclear how long the fighting in the capital would continue and they expressed concern that loyalists could employ terror tactics in a final urban battle.
“There is still some fighting in the capital, but for the most part, the Libyan regime forces seem to have just not engaged,” a U.S. intelligence official said. “The challenge now is that you’ve got a city of 2 million, and we’re into urban warfare.”
The remaining questions, officials said, were Gaddafi’s location and the extent to which he retains the ability to control or communicate with his troops.
British, French and Qatari Special Forces have been operating on the ground in Libya for some time and helped the rebels develop and coordinate the pincer strategy, officials said. At the same time, CIA operatives inside the country — along with intercepted communications between Libyan government officials — provided a deeper understanding of how badly Gaddafi’s command structure had crumbled, according to U.S. officials.
The collapse could be traced to “two things,” a high-ranking U.S. military official said. “One was the knowledge that we had on the disintegration of the command structure of the Gaddafi forces.”