Libya – Rebel forces bore down Monday on Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a key government stronghold where a brigade headed by one of the Libyan leader's sons was digging in to defend the city and setting the stage for a bloody and possibly decisive battle.
The opposition made new headway in its rapid advance through oil towns and along stretches of empty desert highway toward the capital, Tripoli. Their run would have been impossible without international airstrikes that have battered the regime's armor and troops, even as NATO insisted it was only seeking to protect civilians and not to give air cover to an opposition march.
That line looked set to become even more blurred. The airstrikes reversed a government offensive a week ago on the grounds that it was threatening civilians and now is clearly enabling rebels keen to overthrow Gadhafi to push toward the final line of defense on the road to the capital.
The rebels took control of the eastern half of the country early on in the uprising that began a month and a half ago, setting up their capital in the country's second-largest city of Benghazi. Much of the fighting between government supporters and opponents has been along a coastal road that heads out of Benghazi and west through a couple major oil ports, toward Sirte and beyond that, Tripoli.
On Monday, the fighters moved about 70 miles (110 kilometers) west from the coastal oil terminal and town of Ras Lanouf to just beyond the small town of Bin Jawwad, where their push was halted by government fire along the exposed desert highway and the heavily mined entrance to Sirte.
Meanwhile, there was growing criticism from countries like Russia that the international air campaign is overstepping the bounds of the U.N. resolution that authorized it. The complaints came at a critical transition in the campaign from a U.S. to a NATO command. That threatens to hamper the operation, as some of the 28 NATO member nations plan to strictly limit their participation to air patrols, rather than attacks on ground targets.
The Obama administration, facing skeptics at home, is energetically trying to explain the necessity of a U.S. role in another war in a Muslim nation while drawing a line on its involvement in the surge of other uprisings stretching all the way to the Persian Gulf and now stinging Syria's repressive regime in the heart of the Arab world. Some have said the Libya operation sets a precedent.
"Obviously there are certain aspirations that are being voiced by each of these movements, but there's no question that each of them is unique," said Deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough. "We don't get very hung up on this question of precedent."
He said there are no plans for the U.S. to intervene militarily in Syria, where security forces are waging a deadly crackdown.
For Libya's ill-equipped and poorly trained rebel forces fighting their way toward Sirte from their eastern stronghold, the nine-day-old international air operation has dramatically reversed their fortunes. Gadhafi forces, which had been on the brink of taking their de-facto headquarters in the city of Benghazi, had to flee, allowing the rebels to regroup and take back two key oil towns over the weekend.
Now, they are just 60 miles (100 kilometers) out from Sirte, the bastion of Gadhafi's power in the center of the country.
Take control of that, and there's only the largely rebel-held city of Misrata — and then empty desert — in the way of the capital. That ensures Sirte could see some of the fiercest fighting of the rebellion, which began on Feb. 15.
"Gadhafi is not going to give up Sirte easily because straightaway after Sirte is Misrata, and after that it's straight to Gadhafi's house," said Gamal Mughrabi, a 46-year-old rebel fighter. "So Sirte is the last line of defense."
He said there are both anti- and pro-Gadhafi forces inside Sirte.
Some residents were fleeing Sirte, as soldiers from a brigade commanded by Gadhafi's son al-Saadi and allied militiamen streamed to positions on the city's outskirts to defend it, witnesses said. Sirte — where a significant air and military base is located — was hit by airstrikes Sunday night and Monday morning, witnesses said, but they did not know what was targeted.
The city of 100,000 is crucial both for its strategic position and its symbolic value. Over the years, Gadhafi has made it effectively Libya's second capital, building up what had been a quiet agricultural community with lavish conference halls where Arab and African summits were held. The city is dominated by members of the Libyan leader's Gadhadhfa tribe, but many in another large Sirte tribe — the Firjan — are believed to resent his rule, and rebels are hoping to encourage them and other tribes there to rise up to help in their capture of the city.
A rebel commander among the fighters advancing on Sirte acknowledged that their offensive would not have been possible without the strikes, which he said had evened the two sides' firepower.
"Now because of NATO strikes on (the government's) heavy weapons, we're almost fighting with the same weapons, only we have Grad rockets now and they don't," said Gen. Hamdi Hassi at the small town of Bin Jawwad, just 18 miles (30 kilometers) from the front.
Hassi said there was fighting now just outside the small hamlet of Nawfaliyah, 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Sirte and scouting parties had found the road ahead to be heavily mined.
He added that the current rebel strategy was to combine military assault with an attempt to win over some of the local tribes loyal to Gadhafi over to their side.
"There's Gadhafi and then there's circles around him of supporters, each circle is slowly peeling off and disappearing," Hassi said. "If they rise up it would make our job easier."
Fighting in such a densely populated area is likely to complicate the rebels' advance and add to the ambiguity of the NATO-led campaign, authorized by a Security Council resolution to take all necessary measures to protect civilians.
In Russia, which abstained from the U.N. vote, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said strikes on Gadhafi's forces would amount to taking sides in what he called Libya's civil war, and thus would breach the mandate that was initially envisaged as establishing a no-fly zone only to protect civilians.
But the inclusion of language allowing "all necessary means" opened the door to airstrikes and ship-fired cruise missile attacks on Gadhafi's forces to stop attacks on cities and cut supply lines.
And Pentagon officials are looking at plans to expand the firepower and airborne surveillance systems, including using the Air Force's AC-130 gunship armed with cannons that shoot from the side doors, as well as helicopters and drones. That weaponry might allow for more precision in urban fighting, while drawing forces closer to the combat.
NATO's commander for the operation, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard of Canada, insisted his mission was clear, saying every decision was designed to prevent attacks on civilians. "Our goal is to protect and help the civilians and population centers under the threat of attack," he said.
But in Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu noted that the allied operation was launched in response to "the systematic attacks by Col. Gadhafi against his own people."
"That is how this all started, we have to remember that," she said.
Britain and France, which has been the most vocal supporter of the rebellion and is the only Western nation to officially recognize its political leaders, added their voices to those appeals.
In a joint statement, British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said Gadhafi loyalists should abandon the dictator and side with those seeking his ouster.
"We call on all his followers to leave him before it is too late," the two leaders said. "We call on all Libyans who believe that Gadhafi is leading Libya into a disaster to take the initiative now to organize a transition process."
The rebel approach to Sirte sent hundreds of residents, mainly women and children, fleeing the city — some heading to the town of Bani Walid about 150 miles (250 kilometers) west, said Hassan al-Drouie, a Libyan in exile in France in contact with family members in Sirte who were among those who fled. Some members of Gadhafi's tribe in Sirte fled to another of his strongholds, the city of Sebha, deep in Libya's southwestern deserts, said another Libyan in exile, Abdel-Rahman Barkuli, who cited his relatives in Sebha.
Some men had remained in Sirte and had taken up weapons to protect their homes — but not to fight alongside Gadhafi's troops against the rebels, said al-Drouie. He said the al-Saadi Brigades headed by Gadhafi's son have taken up positions on the city's southern and eastern entrances.
Gadhafi is not on the defensive everywhere. His forces continued to besiege Misrata, the main rebel holdout in the west and Libya's third-largest city. Residents reported fighting between rebels and loyalists who fired from tanks on residential areas.
Rida al-Montasser, of the media committee of Misrata, said that nine young men were killed and 23 others wounded when Gadhafi brigades shelled their position in the northwestern part of the city on Sunday night. He also said that the port was bombed.
Libyan officials took foreign journalists on a tour of the city's outskirts but not into the center, indicating government-control did not extend far. Explosions and gunfire echoed through empty streets lined by burned-out tanks and bullet-scarred buildings, many of which had their windows blown out.
A clinic in a residential area was destroyed. Anti-aircraft guns were hidden among the trees.
In one area, 200 Gadhafi supporters held a rally.
Turkey's Anatolia new agency said a Turkish civilian ferry carrying 15 medics, three ambulances and medical equipment was heading for Misrata to help treat some 1,300 people injured in attacks there.
The U.S. launched six Tomahawk missiles Sunday and early Monday from Navy positions in the Mediterranean Sea, two defense officials said Monday on condition of anonymity because they were not yet authorized to release the information.
That brought to 199 the number of the long-range cruise missiles fired by international forces in the campaign, one official said.
International air forces flew 110 missions late Sunday and early Monday — 75 of them strike missions. Targets included Gadhafi ammunition stores, air defenses and ground forces, including vehicles and tanks, a third official said.
French Mirage fighter jets struck a Libyan military command center more than 10 kilometers (six miles) south of Tripoli, said military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard.
International airstrikes also hit Sebha, 400 miles (650 kilometers) south of Tripoli. The area remains strongly loyal to Gadhafi and is a major transit point for ethnic Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger fighting for the government. The state news agency JANA said the strikes destroyed a number of houses. Britain's Defense Ministry announced Monday that its Tornado aircraft had attacked ammunition bunkers around Sebha.
Libya's opposition also got a diplomatic boost Monday from the Gulf nation of Qatar, which recognized Libya's rebels as the legitimate representatives of the country — the first Arab state to do so. Qatar is also one of only two Arab states — the other is the United Arab Emirates — that is contributing fighter planes to the air mission.