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As NATO planes continue their bombardment of Tripoli, troops in rebellion against the rule of Muammar Gaddafi appear to be making some progress in three offensives in the west, including a drive on the capital from Misrata. The rebels also claim to have improved their battlefield communications and coordination with NATO, as British and French attack helicopters are giving them support for the first time. However, despite his compound being under near continuous bombardment, Gaddafi remains defiant claiming victory over “al-Qaeda” forces in the western town of Zawiyah.
The war is also beginning to put strains on the NATO alliance both in resources and on its fragile unity. With no end in sight to the conflict, and no exit strategy except killing or driving out Gaddafi, the alliance is in danger of cracking unless a solution can be found soon.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Speaker John Boehner is threatening to cut off funding for the Libya operation because he believes the president has failed to justify our continued support for the war, and has arrogantly refused to seek congressional authorization for the conflict. But despite widespread unhappiness in both parties with the US involvement in Libya, President Obama holds the upper hand and will almost certainly be able to carry on with what he terms “limited hostilities” without the approval of Congress.
But to what end? On the battlefield, the rebels are in a marginally better position than they were a few weeks ago, but their offensives are uncoordinated and appear haphazard. They have been ejected from the western town of Zawiyah, a scene of intense fighting last week, giving Gaddafi a Pyrrhic victory. Most of the city’s 250,000 inhabitants have fled and the remaining residents are terrified of the dictator’s security apparatus. The once vibrant city is now a smoking ruin. The rebels are vowing to retake the city as it lies just 45 miles from Tripoli in the Nafusa Mountains.
Elsewhere, the rebels’ prospects appear brighter. They have broken out of the formerly besieged town of Misrata and advanced within 90 miles of the capital — largely with the help of NATO air power. But the rebels have halted their advance outside of the city of Zlitan citing “tribal sensitivities” and are urging residents themselves to rise up and rebel. It is but one more indication of the confusion and weakness in the rebel army and the divisions that are preventing the kind of coordination that would lead to greater success on the battlefield.
The offensive from Misrata is being coordinated with NATO and the alliance has asked the rebels to retreat from the outskirts of Zlitan so that British and French attack helicopters can strike government positions. This is according to leaflets dropped from NATO planes — few of which landed among government forces since the rebels didn’t tell NATO command that they had moved.
The third offensive thrust of the rebels is moving out from Benghazi toward the oil center of Brega. Here, too, the rebels have met with some success as they have taken several towns along the road to the sea. But Gaddafi’s forces are putting up stiff opposition and they have made very little headway in recent days.
The rebels’ claim of better coordination and communication is the result of them being equipped with satellite phones and more sophisticated radios — presumably gifts of “non-lethal aid” from the alliance. With much of Libya’s communications infrastructure destroyed, the phones and radios can potentially give the rebels an advantage over government forces.
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