SIRTE (Reuters) - For months the Libyan fighters who toppled Muammar Gaddafi both craved and dreaded the battle for his hometown Sirte. Nearly two weeks of costly fighting have made it clear why.
The fall of the coastal enclave would be a major strategic and psychological boost to the country’s new rulers as they try to stamp out pockets of Gaddafi loyalists, and could encourage the surrender of the other major remaining bastion, Bani Walid.
But the fighters face a cornered and desperate foe that knows how to take advantage of its urban terrain, and parts of the battered city are, by many accounts, still full of terrified civilians caught in the crossfire.
The hazardous mix means the former rebels will have to strike a deft balance between a long fight that would delay their efforts to govern and a bloody victory that would worsen regional divisions and embarrass the fledgling government and its foreign backers.
“Sirte will be captured eventually, but the question is at what cost to the civilian population and the rebels’ international reputation,” Shashank Joshi, Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said.
“The biggest challenge they face is that Sirte is a well-defended urban position, and that is one of the hardest challenges in modern warfare.”
Loyalists holed up inside the city have already repulsed two major assaults by forces affiliated with Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), using snipers, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
More than 50 of the former rebels have been killed and over 460 wounded on the city’s western front alone since brigades from the port city of Misrata began the advance into Sirte on September 15, according to records at an NTC field hospital.
One push into the city center, supported by NATO airstrikes, was repulsed, forcing NTC forces outside the city, which had a population of about 100,000 before fighting broke out.
Many of the NTC fighters are well armed, but this hasn’t been enough to uproot their entrenched enemies. Anti-Gaddafi officials say some of the toppled leader’s most hardened loyalists fell back to Sirte when the rebellion spread. Some believe they include Gaddafi’s army officer son Mutassem.
The fighters, few of them with much military training, have appeared unable or unwilling to hold gains overnight. Many of their vehicle-mounted machine gun and rocket launchers head back to Misrata or to Sirte’s outskirts at sunset.
“A combined arms assault with well-trained forces could do it, but the rebels don’t meet this description,” Joshi said.
“Cities offer numerous defensive positions, fortifications, obstacles to armor, and in Sirte all this is compounded by the tribal make-up of the city.”
NTC commanders insist the delay in taking Sirte has not been because of any military deficiency, but because they are trying to give civilians a chance to evacuate.
“We’re not in a rush to enter. The most important thing is to prevent the bloodshed of civilians,” brigade commander El-Tohamy Abuzein said as he stood near the front line last week.
Thousands of Sirte residents have poured out of the city since fighting started, describing shortages of food, water, electricity and other basic goods inside - reports that have raised the alarm of humanitarian organizations.
The safety of non-combatants is a sensitive issue for Libya’s new government, which was able to take power largely thanks to a NATO mission set up under a mandate to protect civilians.
It is impossible to know how many Sirte residents have died during the assault, but any high death toll blamed on the former rebels could cast further doubt on the NTC’s ability to control the brigades nominally under its command, embarrass their foreign allies and engender regional feuds.
Wary of these dangers, officers have stressed their priority is to save civilian lives, using their tanks, mortars and other heavy weapons only against selective military targets.
With troops surrounding Sirte from three sides and the Mediterranean on the fourth, the former rebels could simply wait until Gaddafi’s forces run out of fuel, water or food, or try to negotiate a solution with the city’s tribal elders.
But a long wait would bring its own problems. About halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi on the country’s main coastal highway, Sirte effectively cuts Libya in half, complicating transport and trade between the two sides.
The NTC also needs to get the city under its control so it can declare the country formally “liberated” and get on with the complicated business of setting up a new interim cabinet and moving toward national elections.
The longer they wait, the more the NTC’s credibility among the various, often armed factions vying for political and military influence may erode.
Fighters hope overrunning the place Gaddafi transformed from a remote fishing village into a modern city might be enough to encourage other holdouts to surrender.
“The group around Gaddafi - all of them believe that Sirte is powerful. Once it falls, that’s it. It’s over,” Yunes Tarjamon, a fighter from Misrata, said on Sirte’s outskirts.
But even if that happens, Sirte is sure to come at a price. Even if the former rebels capture the city with little more bloodshed on their side, much of the city has already been battered by the siege and the responsibility to rebuild it will fall on Libya’s new rulers.
Cities like Zintan in the Western Mountains and Misrata are already clamoring for reconstruction aid, arguing the hardships they endured through the war entitle them to a big share.
It is still unclear what criteria the new leaders will use to repair public buildings, schools and infrastructure - especially when the damage has come from the former rebels’ own guns.
Editing by Barry Malone and Matthew Jones