Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rebels Battle for Brega -- Again

The ragtag band of Libyan rebels in the East are battling in Brega, struggling today to try not to cede anymore of its captured oil towns along the Mediterranean to advancing troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.

Armed with only with machine guns, rocket-propelled grade launchers and mortars, the 1,000 or so rebels sought to stave off the larger, armor-fortified loyalist forces who have already re-taken the oil patch towns of Ras Lanuf, Bin Jawad and Es Sider.

The rebels, who have been in retreat since Monday after a more than 300-mile push forward over the weekend, contend the way they can hold their ground is with air cover from NATO and its partners. Coalition airstrikes cleared the path for the weekend offensive by the rebels.

"We want more to bring a speedy end to this," Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, an opposition spokesman, told CNN. "A strike is not a strike unless it kills," he said.

NATO warplanes have been hampered by sandstorms and other lousy weather in eastern Libya, but a diplomatic source said late last night there is some support for the coalition resuming those airstrikes. But with NATO now in charge, the next round of airstrikes will likely be led by the French and British.

“We will not be taking an active part in strike activities and believe our allies can sustain this for some period of time,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the House Armed Services Committee today.

Even with CIA and British MI6 operatives on the ground, so far the rebel force is a poorly armed and undisciplined army that has shown few signs of understanding military tactic, exports have said. NBC's Richard Engel reported he has seen rebels fire a mortar dangerously without being anchored, rocket launchers aimed backwards and fighters who do not know how to even load their weapons.

"It's pretty much a pick-up ballgame," Gates said, with the rebels devoid of "command and control."

On the political front, NATO and the White House were hoping yesterday's political defection by Gadhafi's foreign minister and ex-intelligence chief, Musa Kusa, was a signal that the regime is on its way to toppling. Kusa is in London, where he is said to be providing valuable information to the coalition partners.

“This is a major defection and a significant blow to the Gaddafi regime. Moussa Kusa is one of Gaddafi’s most trusted aides who can help provide critical intelligence about Gaddafi’s current state of mind and military plans. It also demonstrates that the people around Gaddafi understand his regime is in disarray," said Tommy Vietor, White House National Security Council spokesman.

"As the President said the other night, ‘it should be clear to those around Gaddafi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on his side.’ The people around Gaddafi have to choose whether to place their bet on a regime that has lost all legitimacy and face grave consequences, or get on the right side of history. Moussa Kusa’s decision shows which way the wind is blowing in Tripoli,” Vietor added.

The U.S. is waiting to learn more about the rebels before they start handing them more sophisticated weapons. Peter Bergen, one of the top terrorism experts in the world, wrote today that he does not believe the rebel force is loaded with Al Qaeda operatives, but there is reason to be concerned about that changing.

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