October 10, 2011

Update From Libya’s Battlefronts

With each cleared street in Sirte, Libya’s revolutionaries are moving closer to planting freedom on a national level. Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council (NTC), is probably getting ahead of himself by believing the city will be liberated within one week, but the battle for total control shouldn’t exceed another month. Already accused of holding onto power, Abdul-Jalil appears genuinely eager to advance Libya’s political transition into its electoral phase.

The showdown in the Colonel’s hometown was never going to be easy, given his loyalists’ training, weapons and tactical advantages in positioning. Estimates range between 400 to 2,000 of Gaddafi’s most hardened units, drilled to suppress a populist revolt and combat an organized assault. The NTC also claims that a sizable minority of captured fighters are mercenaries, many from Mauritania. Atia Mansouri, a former Libyan air force officer now coordinating NTC and NATO forces, explains that these “are military soldiers, very well trained, very well armed.” Organizational and communications problems have occurred within the NTC’s units, compounding the interlocking fields of sniper fire established by Gaddafi’s loyalists

“Some are saying 24 hours; this is not right,” Mansouri advised. “It is very difficult to name a time. They have to get it street by street.”

For all of these problems and Sirte’s rising casualties (NTC and civilian), the final battle is still trending in the NTC’s direction. Three assault groups have pushed into Sirte from the west, east and south, with the intention of meeting at the city’s main square (Green Square) near the coastline. Al Zubair Al Kadi, an NTC field commander in Sirte’s south, announced that his fighters, “took over Sirte University last night and all the residential buildings around it, including the student dormitories.” Ibn Sina hospital becomes the next target; NTC commanders reported conflicting views on its status, with one saying the wounded were obstructing an advance.

Meanwhile semi-conventional units of infantry and artillery are advancing down Sirte’s main arteries, flushing out side streets as they move towards the city’s center. Other units are operating clandestinely as “a guerrilla operation,” which is where some of the communications problems occurred. NTC fighters have already flown their tricolor flag over the Ouagadougou conference center, and are moving down the four-lane avenue leading to Green Square. The green-flagged Sabamiyah neighborhood, a stomping ground for Gaddafi’s military officers, was also overrun. Col. Younis al-Abdally, a commander in Sirte, said his troops have surrounded Gaddafi loyalists in the upscale Dollar Street, and one of Gaddafi’s residences has been seized.

al-Abdally admitted that the final battle would be fierce, but claimed that one of Gadhafi's sons and a number of former officials are hiding inside the city. Their capture would ease Sirte’s price in bloodshed.

As strategically and psychologically important as the city is, the smaller battle for Bani Walid may prove equally significant if NTC intel checks out. Last week Abdul-Jalil told reporters that only Sirte is delaying the declaration of a free Libya, as the inland Bani Walid has been completely encircled. Abdul-Jalil said the city would be dealt with as a rogue enclave, but any NTC proclamation would carry more weight if all loyalist hideouts were neutralized. It’s possible that Bani Walid will fall into NTC hands before Sirte, deciding Abdul-Jalil’s mind for him.

"I will reassure all Libyans that the liberation will be done in the coming few days,” Abdul-Jalil told reporters on Sunday. “The city of Bani Walid is under siege from five directions.”

Of greater importance, the man who attempted to negotiate a peaceful surrender with Gaddafi’s loyalists claims that Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam was spotted distributing cash on Saturday. "We are 100 percent sure that he is inside, at least until last night," said Abdullah Kenshil, who is reasonably confident that Saif will be found. Aside from the morale victory, Saif’s capture would degrade Gaddafi’s command capabilities by removing one of his heads; the challenge of running a resistance campaign will increase exponentially without his sons in the field. Then he would be forced to find new trustworthy commanders, an unlikely outcome, or to move when he wants anything done.

For now the NTC continues to suspect that Gaddafi is moving along the Algerian border, apparently believing that the government would protect him in a worst-case scenario. On Monday Moussa al-Kouni, the NTC’s Tuareg representative, told a news conference that Gaddafi had previously sent his son Khamis to an area where Algeria meets Niger’s border, with orders to set up a command center. The NTC has established control over most of the southwest; its Fezzan campaign left Sabha on September 20th and seized the outlying Ghat by September’s end. The southern border with Algeria and Niger is particularly mountainous, obstructing a systematic sweep of the area, but the NTC is gradually encroaching upon Gaddafi’s personal space.

Taking away his eyes and ears seems to be the quickest method of smoking him out into the open.

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