In Libya, Gaddafi's forces dig into populated areas

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 4:10 PM

OUTSIDE AJDABIYA, LIBYA - Opposition fighters cheered and flashed victory signs as allied jets streaked across the sky Monday over the strategic city of Ajdabiya, partly controlled by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

But as the rebels sped toward Ajdabiya in dozens of vehicles, many mounted with machine guns, Gaddafi's soldiers attacked. They rained mortar and tank shells that exploded like thunderclaps, spraying thick smoke and debris along the highway. The rebels quickly retreated.

Even as allied strikes hammer Gaddafi's air defenses, his ground forces have dug in within heavily populated urban areas such as Ajdabiya, and on Monday they gained ground in the western city of Misurata.

U.S. officials say the three-day-old international military intervention is intended to protect Libyan civilians, not provide support to Libya's opposition. But Monday's setbacks for the rebels revealed the degree to which the disorganized and ill-equipped force is depending on allied airstrikes to end Gaddafi's 41-year rule. It also raised questions, so far unresolved, about how far coalition members are prepared to go to help Libya's opposition.

On Monday, NATO members voiced disagreement over the goal and leadership of the international mission in Libya. The United States had hoped to turn command of the operation over to NATO, but that transition appears to have been delayed by the lack of consensus within the organization.

U.S. officials maintained Monday that they were interested only in shielding civilians from violence and that getting rid of Gaddafi would be up to the Libyan people. But rebels said more assistance was needed to avert the massacre that would inevitably come if Gaddafi was allowed to remain in power.

"We can't win without the airplanes of the international community," Farhad al-Mraibi, a 55-year-old rebel fighter, said after the retreat. "Gaddafi will kill all of us."

Top rebel officials say the internationally enforced no-fly zone has come too late to alter the military equation on the ground. Their forces, they say, are not militarily equipped to battle Gaddafi's superior arsenal of tanks, rocket launchers and other heavy land-based weaponry.

Preventing Gaddafi from laying siege to cities falls under the U.N. mandate of protecting civilians, and rebel leaders said Monday that more allied airstrikes are needed to swiftly immobilize his ground forces. Although they rejected the idea of foreign troops on Libyan soil, they said the international intervention must be about regime change - a position that U.S. officials have pointedly declined to take.

"I believe this is about pushing Gaddafi out of power," said Salwa el-Daghili, a constitutional law professor and member of the rebel provisional leadership. "They must quickly attack Gaddafi's ground forces."

Since the U.N. Security Council vote authorizing the use of force last week, Gaddafi's ground forces have attempted to retake the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, an offensive that was repelled only after allied airstrikes decimated Gaddafi's encampments outside the city.

Rebels are concerned, however, that the coalition has focused on Benghazi to the exclusion of other areas where rebels are holding out against government forces, notably Misurata, Libya's third-largest city. There, Gaddafi's forces launched a major assault on the eve of the U.N. vote.

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