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Libya's rebels struggle to retake territory, despite UN help

A key test of whether Libya's rebels will be able to make headway is Ajdabiya, a hotbed of anti-Qaddafi sentiment. So far, it's not looking promising for the rebels.

By Staff writer / March 22, 2011

Libyan rebels stop on the road as mortars from Muammar Qaddafi's forces are fired on them on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Tuesday, March 22. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Qaddafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat just last week.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

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Zueitina, Libya

International airpower has stemmed Muammar Qaddafi’s march into Libya's east, reinvigorating hope and resolve in the rebel capital of Benghazi, which was on the verge of being overrun on Saturday when French, US, and British warplanes sprang into action.

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“We’d lost hope,” says Ahmad Dabbous, a clothing wholesaler who’s been carrying a rifle for 30 days now. “But Obama stood with us. Now I can’t see Qaddafi moving east again.”

Now comes the real test. So far, the international support hasn’t given the rebellion’s lightly armed and largely untrained militia the ability to drive Colonel Qaddafi’s forces from population centers they claimed in a series of brutal assaults.

If the rebels are unable to make headway and Qaddafi remains defiant, international forces could face the unhappy choice between abandoning the uprising or committing to a much longer engagement than originally envisioned.

Rebels struggle to retake Ajdabiya, an easy target

A key test is Ajdabiya, a hotbed of anti-Qaddafi sentiment and the last major city on the road to Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital.

The international coalition’s aerial superiority makes another Qaddafi offensive on Benghazi improbable. That much is clear from his destroyed tanks and grad missile launchers on the road to Ajdabiya, with turrets blown off and pools of congealed metal beside them.

But as Benghazi families continue to make pilgrimages south to celebrate the wreckage of Qaddafi’s army, the rebels are stalled outside Ajdabiya, where fierce firefights Monday and Tuesday have done little to overturn a current stalemate.

Fighter jets and cruise missiles may be good for destroying Qaddafi’s armor on the country’s desert roads, but in places like Ajdabiya where Qaddafi’s forces are mixed in with the local population and rebel fighters, they’re of little immediate use.

If Ajdabiya – lacking power and largely cut off from the rest of Libya for more than a week now – has been so difficult to retake, how much harder will it be for the untrained rebels to push west toward Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown filled with loyalists, and on to Tripoli?

And will the international coalition that has given the rebels breathing room be able to hold together in the face of electorates suspicious of another war until the rebels can find and press an advantage? US officials have publicly insisted the mission is only to protect Libyan civilians, not to provide air cover for a rebel advance west.

ENGAGE on Facebook: Should NATO be the governing body for mission control in Libya?

'We love Sarkozy, Obama'

Indeed, support for Sarkozy and Obama may be flagging in their home countries, but here they’re heroes, at least for a few days. One man in Zueitina, a small town that hosts an oil refinery and power station about 10 miles northeast of Ajdabiya, insists his next son will be named Sarkozy.

But the rebel militiamen gathered in force in Zueitina are increasingly frustrated.

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