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.
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?
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