A general overseeing the air campaign says loyalists are taking advantage of urban settings that prevent heavy airstrikes
© Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Smoke is seen after heavy artillery fired by anti-Gadhafi fighters during clashes in Sirte Oct. 10.

Washington - The commander of NATO's air campaign in Libya has said that hundreds of organized fighters loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi pose a "resilient and fierce" threat in the two remaining pro-Qaddafi strongholds, and are exploiting the urban settings to complicate the alliance's mission to protect civilians.

In the coastal city of Surt and the desert enclave of Bani Walid, pro-Qaddafi snipers on rooftops and loyalist gunmen in pickup trucks are terrorizing residents, killing some and intimidating many others, said the officer, Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Jodice II of the United States Air Force.

General Jodice said a mix of African mercenaries and Qaddafi loyalist troops have successfully sustained command-and-control and supply lines in staunch defense of the cities, despite a NATO air campaign that is now in its seventh month and a multipronged ground assault in Surt by anti-Qaddafi fighters.

"It's really been quite interesting how resilient and fierce they've been," General Jodice said in a telephone interview on Sunday from his command center just north of Bologna, Italy. "We're all surprised by the tenacity of the pro-Qaddafi forces. At this point, they might not see a way out."

General Jodice's comments, coming on Sunday as former rebel fighters battled their way into the heart of Surt and then were driven back by sniper and mortar fire, tempered the boasts of anti-Qaddafi forces that Surt would soon be theirs and once again underscored the limitations that have confronted NATO throughout the air campaign.

NATO's mandate to protect civilians who are threatened or have come under attack is complicated by the alliance's caution in striking targets - like buildings where snipers are hiding - that could result in the death or injury of civilians.

Comment: Where's NATO's protection of civilians when Israel attacks Palestinians, or NATO workers in Palestine? How about American [Drone/Zombie?] attacks on Iraqi's, Afghans, or Pakistani's?

"The ability of NATO to affect the fighting inside the city is small," said a senior NATO diplomat on Monday who was not authorized to speak on the record. "The fight now is really between the forces on the ground."

Or as Air Chief Marshal Stephen Dalton, the chief of air staff for Britain's Royal Air Force, put it last week in reviewing the successes and shortcomings of the NATO military mission in Libya: "What air power has done has allowed the conditions to be set for that militia to then prove themselves capable of putting in place a good order and now, hopefully, a political regime."

While General Jodice and other NATO officials said that the stiff resistance in the two cities did not threaten to spread to other parts of Libya, it does underscore the need for the alliance's continued military involvement as the post-Qaddafi provisional government struggles to build its own security forces and protect civilians.

"NATO will continue to do the mission as long as needed, but no longer than that," General Jodice said, echoing statements from NATO defense ministers who met in Brussels last week.

General Jodice's command plays a pivotal role in a convoluted chain that starts with political orders from NATO headquarters in Brussels and passes through a military command center in Naples, Italy. General Jodice, a native of New Milford, N.J., oversees the delicate process of matching specific allied aircraft, armed with specific weapons, to specific targets to achieve the best results on the ground with the least risk to civilians.

More than 500 planners, analysts and operations specialists from 26 countries, including the non-NATO nations Sweden, Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, work from a small base set amid farms and cornfields near Bologna.

The alliance's pace of operations and number of targets attacked have declined steadily since midsummer, especially in the past two weeks as bad weather has grounded many missions at bases around the region.

Strike missions have dropped to about two dozen a day from 50 missions daily, and allied warplanes rarely drop their precision-guided bombs these days, allied officials say. Take the three-day period from last Friday through Sunday, for example.

On Friday, one vehicle staging area was attacked and destroyed in Surt, according to a NATO statement. On Saturday, there were no strikes. And on Sunday, three armed vehicles in Bani Walid were hit.

The United States is still flying an array of surveillance planes and remotely piloted Predator drones, particularly near Surt. But General Jodice said there was no coordination or intelligence-sharing between NATO and the anti-Qaddafi fighters, though British and French special forces troops, among other advisers on the ground in Libya, have for months helped train the former rebels and provided them with intelligence.

The advances by the anti-Qaddafi forces on Sunday came after three days of intense fighting that included some of the Libyan conflict's bloodiest battles to date. The former rebels seized a convention center and a hospital in Surt, both of which General Jodice said had been used as sniper nests and loyalist command posts.

General Jodice said in an e-mail on Monday that the Qaddafi loyalists in Surt "still show a willingness to fight, which continues to threaten the civilians remaining in the city." He said the fighters were "exploiting Surt's built-up and populated environment; they have nowhere else to go, they are reluctant to lay down their weapons and are trapping civilians inside the city, preventing them from leaving safely.

"The situation is extremely dynamic and NATO continues to monitor and act, when required, to protect civilians from attack or threat of attack."