By Paul Schemm, Globe and Mail, March 11, 2011
Instead, the pro-Gadhafi troops, positioned in Ras Lanouf's residential about 16 kilometers east of the oil port across a barren desert no man's land, were raining rockets and shelling along the main coastal highway, targeting rebel vehicles trying to reinforce and bring supplies to the port, said Mohammed Gherani, a rebel fighter.
The bodies of at least three opposition fighters killed in the shelling were brought to rebel-held Brega, a larger oil port to the west, bringing the toll from two days of battles at Ras Lanouf to at least nine.
The standoff in Ras Lanouf was an attempt by the rebels' ragtag force to halt a dramatic shift in the momentum of Libya's upheaval, which is shaping into a potential civil war. Last week, opposition forces that hold the entire eastern half of the country came charging along the Mediterranean coast westward, trying to push toward the capital Tripoli, Mr. Gadhafi's strongest bastion.
But the regime struck back with an overwhelming force, backed by warplanes, artillery, rockets and tanks, that over the past few days pushed the rebels back to Ras Lanouf, 615 kilometers southeast of Tripoli. On Thursday, pro-Gadhafi forces barraged the port for hours, reportedly adding warships shelling from offshore to their arsenal, in an assault that stunned the once-confident rebels and sent hundreds of their volunteer fighters fleeing in an unorganized retreat.
“They came from the air, they came from the sea, and there were rockets everywhere. It was a big surprise for us,” one rebel fighter, Mustafa Mehrik, a 39-year-old coffeeshop owner, said in Brega. “Everyone is worried. Today they say there will bring heavy weapons from Benghazi.”
In Tripoli, Mr. Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam vowed to retake the eastern half of the country. If government forces take Ras Lanouf, they could threaten the opposition's bastions further east.
Far different from the hopeful reports of a few days ago, the dictator and forces seem to have inflicted both death and destruction on the ragtag rebels, and seems to have, for the moment, established some manoeuvring room in the last couple of days.
From this perspective, one cannot help but admire the restraint of the U.S. government and its president, Barack Obama, while the hawks in his own country are demanding a U.S. led No-Fly Zone, he sends signals that "nothing is off the table" while not announcing what could be a commitment to a very slippery slope, if he agrees to the No-Fly demands. All really seasoned veterans of such campaigns are clear that a No-Fly beginning rarely, if ever, ends there. It escalates into full-blown warfare, and that is a prospect the U.S. cannot afford.
While there is discomfort with the U.S. restraint, there could be a very short-term "mission accomplished" scene, followed by a much longer and more protracted conflict should a coalition of countries, including the U.S., engage in a No-Fly proposal.
Proposals that include all forms of peaceful "tightening of the noose" around the Libyan dictator, and humanitarian aid, as well as a face-to-face meeting between Secretary of State Clinton and the Libyan rebel council are a good sign that mature, responsible and seasoned heads are still prevailing in the U.S. Situation Room.