The anti-Gaddafi ("rebels" seems anachronistic for fighters who have ousted Colonel Gaddafi and seized Tripoli) forces camped outside Sirte know that they still face a huge challenge. I've spent the past three days on their front lines, about 60 miles or so from Gaddafi's hometown. And what I saw there says much about the six-month uprising and what might come next.
On Friday, as the clock ticked down to Saturday's deadline for Sirte's surrender, they came under heavy and sustained rocket attack. Tank shells exploded around their positions outside the town of Umm Saeda. Their chaotic attempt to advance up the road came rapidly undone. They responded with their unaimed Grad rockets and random bursts from anti-aircraft guns.
In six months their fighting force has received cash, equipment and some training but is still blighted by the same problems I saw when their stronghold of Benghazi came under attack in March.
- Command and control -- the leadership still seems unable to co-ordinate its fighting forces. No-one at the front line is in charge. The day trippers -- the volunteers who pitched up by taxi to join the rabble -- are gone but there still is a general air of confusion. Advances appear from nowhere and rapidly turn into retreat
- Supply lines -- are overstretched, exactly as they were when Rommel and Monty fought over this land 70 years ago. The National Transitional Council forces are now almost 300 miles from Benghazi. One Russian-built armored personnel carrier I saw was out of operation for six days while its crew waited for a flat tire to be repaired. The queue at the fuel depot is more than two hours
- Stiff resistance -- when we came under rocket attack it seemed pretty clear that the Gaddafi forces were zeroed in on the road. They must have had spotters watching, ready to order a strike as we approached. There are reports of T92 tanks dug in around Sirte, and preparations for a final stand
That leaves a major problem. Their civilian leadership knows that Sirte, with its close Gaddafi association, will be difficult to take by force. That's why they have tried so hard to find a peaceful solution, extending the deadline once already.
NATO can help only so much here. There is little it could do in the event of an urban street fight. NATO's internal mandate for action expires on September 27 (although it could be extended). And anyway, is it even legal to bomb tanks in a defensive posture around Sirte, when United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 permits the use of force to defend civilians -- not to finish off pro-Gaddafi forces?
Today, the focus is on Bani Walid. Taking this town would further isolate Sirte and tighten the siege. Anti-Gaddafi forces are also on their way to Sabha, another regime stronghold.
This seems the sensible thing to do. Sirte is all but cut off and could be left to stew. All the indications are that the population is turning against the regime figures in the city as conditions there worsen. And if Colonel Gaddafi is eventually found - in or out of the country - the resolve of the last of his supporters will surely be broken.
There's just one problem. What if Gaddafi has chosen his hometown to make a last stand?