Libya's War May Hinge on the Brutal Battle for Misratah

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Christophe Simon / AFP / Getty Images

A man walks through the severely damaged Tripoli Street in the besieged city of Misratah on April 26, 2011

Misratah has become the Libyan war's most infamous quagmire, despite its size and location. The rebel-held port city with a population of just half a million on the country's western Mediterranean coast is completely isolated from the swaths of rebel-held territory in the east. As such, both sides recognize it as a symbol of the rebellion's claims to represent all Libyans, not only those who live in the east. And the fact that the city not only took up arms against the dictatorship but also has stood its ground over two months of vicious fighting has earned it a reputation as an intractable thorn in the side of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi — and as an icon of hope for Libya's embattled rebel movement.

"The city of Misratah has historically been opposed to Gaddafi because they don't need his patronage," says George Joffe, a Libya specialist at Cambridge University. "The port is the financial focus, not oil, so they are wealthy, independent of the leadership." Joffe says Gaddafi made the mistake of neglecting Misratah and some other towns in the west, to his own detriment. "Like Gharyan [in the Nafusa mountains], they have been rejected by Gaddafi, so they have less to lose in opposing him."

Alienation from Gaddafi may be one factor explaining Misratah's stubborn resistance. But it may also be the fact that its residents have nowhere else to go. As the eastern front line has shifted back and forth along a 200-mile (320 km) desert highway between Benghazi and Ras Lanuf, rebel fighters there have become locked into a pattern of poorly organized attacks followed by chaotic retreats. But Misratah's besieged rebels, surrounded on one side by the sea and on all others by tribes and the government-controlled territory, have no line of retreat. And they face their enemy at close quarters. "In Misratah, the fighting is mostly bloody urban battles at close range," says Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who has spent the past two months documenting the conflict in Libya.

The terrain makes it more difficult for the regime's forces to target the rebels with artillery weapons from longer range, and the absence of an escape route forces the rebels to hold their positions or be killed. "They had to stand and fight, and defend their ground," says Bouckaert in an e-mail. "Their learning curve was bloody and steep, but in the end they organized themselves in effective pods of fighters, halting the advance of the Gaddafi forces."

Indeed, its failure to dislodge the rebels may be the explanation for the Libyan military's planned withdrawal from the city. On Sunday, Libya's Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said that the army had suspended its operations in the city to allow nearby tribes to mediate a solution — a move that some initially credited as a significant turning point, and even a rebel victory for the town. But fighters and commanders in the east, who had seen Gaddafi's bluffs before, were more skeptical — with good reason. On Monday, fighters in the city reported that there had been no signs of tribal intervention and that government troops continued to heavily shell the city's outskirts.

Meanwhile, despite an increase in boat traffic through Misratah's port delivering food and medicine and evacuating the wounded, activists say the humanitarian situation may be deteriorating. "Misratah continues to be the target of Gaddafi's forces' brutal attacks against its civilians," one rebel activist who declined to be named for security reasons told TIME in an e-mail on Tuesday. A number of recent casualties have resulted from the government's use of cluster munitions, he said.

There's no sign yet that Misratah's battle has run its course. A local doctor told AFP that Misratah has suffered an average of 11 deaths a day since the fighting began, with 28 deaths on Saturday alone — the highest daily toll so far. The city's tiny medical clinic has attracted a team of international volunteer doctors, but the facilities have proven ill-equipped to treat the most severe injuries and have often been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Ships chartered by the International Organization for Migration, UNICEF, the International Committee for the Red Cross and other aid agencies have evacuated some of the critically wounded. But the journeys onward to Benghazi, Tobruk or Malta can take more than 20 hours.

Last week, photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed while covering intense fighting in the city. Guy Martin, another photojournalist who was seriously wounded in the same mortar attack, had to wait until Monday to be evacuated due to the precariousness of his injuries. Bouckaert said that a French blogger who had been shot in the neck remains in a condition too critical to move.

Still, the intermittent arrivals of fishing boats carrying weapons to the rebels have helped to keep the town's uprising going, whereas others like the one in Zawiyah stumbled under heavy government bombardment. On Tuesday, rebels even trumpeted their victories, claiming to have recaptured a crucial artery, Tripoli Street, and pushed government forces out of the city. "The Gaddafi regime claims to have decided to withdraw its remaining [defeated] troops from Misratah!" wrote one rebel activist.

But how long can an isolated island of rebel control in western Libya hold the regime's forces at bay? Rebels in Benghazi have complained that NATO's air strikes are too slow, halting some of the regime's offensives but failing to tip the balance in their favor. Around Misratah, NATO air strikes have destroyed much of the government's heavy artillery, but loyalist fighters firing mortars using explosive and cluster shells "are virtually impossible for NATO to target as they just involve a man-carried launching tube that can be easily hidden," says Bouckaert. That's a peril the rebels are left to face on their own.

Still, the rebels have made significant gains in recent days. "But now," warns Bouckaert, loyalist forces "have regrouped on the outskirts of the city and begun heavy artillery fire of Grad missiles and cluster bombs into the city, targeting many parts of the city including the clinic and the port area." The fight for Misratah, he adds, is far from over.