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New Libya challenge: Qaddafi forces march on despite no-fly zone

The challenge for coalition forces in Libya is how to stop Qaddafi loyalists from attacking cities without harming civilians, a top US officer says. It is the classic dilemma of urban warfare.

By Anna Mulrine / March 23, 2011

Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Gaddafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah on March 20.

Heidi Levine/Sipa Press/Newscom

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Washington

Libyan forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi are stepping up their operations and moving into and out of key western cities, despite reports that some of these troops have pulled back, a top US military officer said Wednesday.

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As a result – and now that the coalition has effectively established a no-fly zone – senior US military officials are turning their attention to Colonel Qaddafi’s ground forces.

But there are frustrating complexities inherent in attacking ground forces that are operating in the urban areas, say senior US military officials.

Equally frustrating is that Qaddafi and his military commanders are well aware of those complexities, say defense analysts.

Libya timeline: Air strikes put pressure on Qaddafi in Misratah

As Qaddafi’s troops fight in close proximity to rebel groups and civilians, the most obvious is that the possibility of accidental casualties from coalition air strikes increases – along with the risk that such deaths could create divisions within an already fragile coalition.

What’s more, the current coalition strategy does not address some of the inherent advantages that Qaddafi’s forces currently possess, defense analysts add.

This will be a particular dilemma for coalition forces as the US military turns its attention to cities like Ajdabiya and Misratah in the west.

In these cities, “regime forces continue to clear opposition, increase combat operations, and target civilian operations in the city,” Rear Adm. Gerald Hueber, chief of staff for the military task force in charge of coalition operations in Libya, said in a Pentagon briefing Wednesday. “As a result, we are pressurizing Qaddafi’s forces that are attacking those civilian populations.”

This pressure now involves targeting loyalist mechanized forces and mobile surface-to-air missile sites. The US military has also been “interdicting their lines of communications which supply their beans and their bullets, their command-and-control, and any opportunities for sustainment of that activity.”

The US military’s current goal is to try to strike Qaddafi’s forces before they enter the cities, Hueber said – “interdict those forces before they enter the city, cut off their lines of communication, and cut off their command-and-control.”

Urban warfare's 'difficult environment'

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