Updated at 5:15 p.m. est
NATO's ominous warning yesterday for people in Misurata to stay away from Moammar Gadhafi's forces appears to have some teeth behind it.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates disclosed today that for the first time in the air campaign armed predator drones will be deployed and fire on Moammar Gadhafi's forces and military hardware.
"I think that will give us some precision capability," Gates said.
The U.S. decision to use drones, which can fly low to hit precise targets while not jeopardizing the safety of airmen, comes as Eurepoean officials urged stepped up strikes on Gadhafi.
Drones in the sky over Libya is not new. As was reported here three weeks ago, the unmanned aircraft have been an eye in the sky from nearly the start of the Libyan air campaign. Now, however, they can fire on targets.
And, while the U.S. remains opposed to putting military boots on the ground in Libya, there is no shortage of American spies there. The Central Intelligence Agency has "operators" conducting surveillance, and to a degree, vetting the rebel force, knowledgeable sources revealed.
"They're all over the place in Libya," said one informed source.
Things are heating up in Libya again for the United States.
As Italy, Britain and France prepare to send small teams of military advisers to school the hapless Libyan rebel army in coordinated warfare, the Western European powers are prepared to put troops on the ground to support humanitarian efforts to end the misery in Misurata.
"I am very optimistic and we will win," Saif al-Islam, the defiant son of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi said overnight on AlLibya television.
Forces loyal to Gadhafi have relentlessly shelled Misurata, reportedly without deference to civilians or hospitals. The western Libyan city is being held by a small but committed band of rebel fighters, but hundreds of people in Misurata have been killed and the conditions there are deteriorating, humanitarian groups warn.
"Just as Benghazi was saved within hours, so must Misurata be,” Former British Foreign Secretary David Owen wrote in The Times of London. “We have probably only a few days."
France has vowed to step up NATO airstrikes, but many analysts say the situation in Misurata may require some experienced security forces on the ground.
The European Union is offering the use of about 1,000 ground troops to protect the humanitarian relief efforts, but Gadhafi loyalists vow to attack any foreign forces on Libyan soil. United Nations relief officials in Misurata will have to request the assistance.
"On the issue of ground troops, the [UN] Security Ashton confirmed that the EU had formally offered to deploy 1,000 soldiers to Libya’s third-largest city, resolution is very clear," EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said at a joint meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council in Abu Dhabi.
"In line with our work to support humanitarian assistance, I have asked to make sure that if the UN asked the EU to support them to getting aid into the country, we have thought about ways to do that," Ashton said.
France, meanwhile, said it already sent some military advisers to the Libyan rebels, and Britain and Italy will soon dispatch their own military advisers to Libya.
"They’re going in to help the opposition run themselves better or better organize themselves in order to defend themselves against Gadhafi and his regime’s attacks," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
The United States has no intention to send advisers, but the White House is expected to send "nonlethal" surplus supplies to the rebels.