Warfare In Tripoli Poses New Challenges For NATO

The fight for Tripoli is on. Rebels and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have each, in the past couple of days, claimed to have the upper hand. But the house-to-house combat characteristic of urban warfare poses new challenges for the rebels and the NATO forces supporting them.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: The situation in Libya seems to change by the hour. Earlier today, government forces mounted strong resistance in parts of the Libyan capital. Then, rebel forces scored an important victory, seizing control of Moammar Gadhafi's primary compound in Tripoli. At this point, the Libyan leader is still at large and many of his forces, at least for now, have simply dissolved into the city.

With the fight now focused on Tripoli, NPR's Rachel Martin reports on the unique challenges posed by urban warfare.

RACHEL MARTIN: If Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is found, killed or captured, the rebels will finally be able to declare victory. Until then, the situation is totally unpredictable.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Tripoli may or may not hold for several days. It may be free or liberated in a day. It could have cadres that hold on for some time.

MARTIN: Anthony Cordesman is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says, if that happens, if Gadhafi's forces dig in, it becomes an all together different kind of military operation.

CORDESMAN: You have to fight them out, building by building, and it is very messy and it can lead to very high casualties and a lot of physical damage.

MARTIN: U.S. and NATO forces have been targeting Gadhafi's command and control structures in Tripoli since the campaign began five months ago. Now that the rebel forces have entered the capital and taken over key parts of the city, the challenge is rooting out the elements of Gadhafi's forces still committed to the fight.

David Johnson is a senior researcher with the RAND Corporation and he studied another urban battle: the U.S. fight in Sadr City, Iraq in 2008. Johnson says in that standoff, U.S. forces built a wall around Sadr City, cutting off militants from food and supplies.

DAVID JOHNSON: And by doing that, it's created a condition where these people came out and fought U.S. soldiers, rather than U.S. soldiers having to go in to fight them.

MARTIN: Johnson says the same lessons of urban warfare can apply to the situation in Libya. But because there are no NATO troops on the ground, it'll be up to the Libyan rebels to force Gadhafi's fighters out into the open. The goal: strangle them into a protracted battle. But at this point, the rebels are focused instead on the dramatic, if not necessarily decisive, actions like storming Gadhafi's compound.

JOHNSON: The difficulty, I think, is going to be between this desire to overwhelm and sweep through wherever Gadhafi forces are or some patience that creates a condition where in a classic siege-like way that they have to do something, forcing them to make some kind of action, they become visible and they become particularly visible to overhead NATO assets.

MARTIN: NATO has flown more than 7,500 strike sorties since the beginning of the operation in late March. And the U.S. also has predator drones flying in Libya.

Dave Johnson, who's also a retired Army colonel, says those predators are especially useful in urban warfare, tracking and locking onto targets with high levels of precision, crucial in a city of roughly two million people. The key is getting good intelligence from the ground.

Here's retired Air Force Lieutenant General Mike Dunn.

Lieutenant General MIKE DUNN: Because you've gotta distinguish friend from foe. Both sides don't always wear uniforms or carry flags or operate a certain type of equipment that would allow you to identify one from the other. It's always better to have someone on the ground pointing out there's a guy 100 meters from me on the top of that hill, hit him.

MARTIN: It's that coordination between Libyan rebels on the ground and NATO forces flying overhead that'll help determine Libya's fate, over the next few days, maybe weeks, maybe longer.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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