Airstrikes leave Libyan rebels and govt matched

Last Updated: Sat, Apr 09, 2011 10:50 hrs

The Libyan rebels' battlefield tactics have come a long way since their chaotic, amateur performance just weeks before when their untrained fighters madly charged ahead and then fled just as wildly in the face of bombardment.

On a recent day on the front lines, a truck-born battery of rockets moved methodically, unleashing a whooshing volley of Grads on government forces, then advanced several hundred yards (meters) ahead to avoid counter-strikes before firing again. Forward observers with newly acquired satellite phones and GPS trackers guide the strikes.

But despite being more organized, as well as reinforced with captured heavy weapons and backed by some of the world's finest air forces, the rebels are a long away from overpowering Moammar Gadhafi's forces, much less marching on the capital, Tripoli.

The core of the rebel force is about 1,000 military troops who defected to the opposition backed now by hundreds of civilian volunteers who underwent at least some quick training in the past weeks. Alongside them are thousands of other untrained volunteers, most of whom are of little use in a real fight.

They face a government force at the front lines that is believed to be somewhat smaller. But Gadhafi's troops are better trained and remain better equipped, even after international airstrikes have destroyed nearly a third of their weaponry.

The back and forth fighting, with NATO stepping in case the rebels lose too badly, has left Libya a divided country mired in a military stalemate.

On paper, Gadhafi's army looks much stronger.

The three crack security brigades run by his sons Khamis, al-Saadi and Muatassim — the best forces Libya has — are estimated to total up to 20,000 men, said George Joffe, a Libya researcher at the Center of International Studies at Cambridge University. "The only organized military formations in Libya are under the control of the Gadhafi government."

But only a fraction of those are available to deploy on the main front against rebels trying to advance from the east. The rest are busy laying siege to the main rebel-held city in the west, Misrata, or are needed to hold down the rest of the fractious country.

"They've got to keep forces in the south, in the center, in the rest of Tripolitania," said Joffe, referring to the western half of the country. "They must be stretched rather thin."

Even if airstrikes hadn't stopped Gadhafi's forces from using heavy weapons, Joffe said, they still wouldn't have had the manpower to occupy the rebel-held east and take the de facto opposition capital, Benghazi. "It's taken them two weeks or more just to subdue Misrata, you can imagine how much longer it would have taken them to deal with Benghazi."

In their 2009 "Balance of Forces," the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated the Libyan army had a staggering 1,914 tanks. More than half of them, however, were believed to be out of operation due to a lack of spare parts at the time and only 181 were the comparatively modern Russian-built 1980s-era T-72 tanks.

NATO announced on Tuesday that since March 19, the U.N. mandated no-fly zone and accompanying campaign of airstrikes across the country has destroyed 30 percent of Gadhafi's weaponry, forcing the Libyan army to protect the rest with human shields or conceal them in cities. Others are entrenched, guarding the approach to Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte.

However, the government has still managed to stall the rebel advance with rockets and artillery in battles this week over the oil town of Brega.

"It depends on airstrikes, or we get more reinforcements and weapons," said Lt. Muftah Omar Hamza, a professional soldier fighting for the rebels. "We need tanks, rocket launchers and Grad (rockets)."

The first month of fighting saw bands of lightly armed rebel volunteers, known as the "shebab" or youth, making disorganized rushes across the desert only to be pummeled by the government's heavy weapons. At one point, Gadhafi's men nearly took back Benghazi until they were stopped by the airstrikes.

But now dissident military units are taking the lead on the rebel side, and it seems to be paying off for them — with careful tactics, cautious advances and a policy of keeping the rank amateurs away from the front. The rebels have also been better at bringing into use dozens more rockets and mortars captured from government forces.

There are also now spotters equipped with satellite phones and GPS trackers to improve the accuracy of the rebel barrages.

"Now we have orders to hold certain positions," said Mansour Obeid, a representative of the rebel's military council, who was helping coordinate the fighting at the front. "We're still getting back-up forces from across the east and we have told the shebab to go back and get training in Benghazi."

Everywhere in the long stretches of desert between the towns of Benghazi, Ajdabiya and Brega lie the burned out hulks of Gadhafi's once proud tank force, blasted by airstrikes.

But now the regime forces have changed their tactics as well. They have stopped using their heavy armor at the front because of its vulnerability to airstrikes. Instead, they move in pickup trucks like the rebels, but they also have greater numbers of rockets that they can rain down on the opposition.

That and the heavy weapons they have in reserve make it highly unlikely the rebels will be able to take heavily defended Sirte, which they would have to do to advance beyond to Tripoli.

Only a much more aggressive campaign of airstrikes would be likely to break the deadlock.

"At the current juncture I don't think the will is there unless the situation becomes more serious and it becomes politically expedient to do so," Theodore Karasik of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai said of the prospect of closer air support from NATO.

"It's going to take more discipline and order within their ranks plus the addition of extra types of weaponry in order to take out Gadhafi's entrenched forces, and that at this juncture seems difficult to do," said Karasik, predicting a long drawn out stalemate and a divided country.

For now the airstrikes have bought the rebels time. Time for the rebel army to organize themselves and start buying heavy weapons of their own, but it is unclear if they will ever be equal to Gadhafi's army.

"We cannot match their weapons," said Kamal Mughrabi, 64, a retired soldier who joined the rebel army as shells drove the rebels back once again from Brega on Tuesday. "If the planes don't come back and hit them we'll have to keep pulling back."


Schemm reported from Cairo.