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Challenges for NATO as Fighting Continues in Gadhafi Strongholds

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Douglas Mpuga

Heavy fighting is reportedly taking place near the Libyan town of Bani Walid. Moammar Gadhafi forces blasted fighters at the northern entrance with mortar fire while the revolutionary forces returned fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, according to reports from the North African country.

Fighters also fired into the desert north of the gate where Gadhafi loyalists were believed to be trying to surround them ahead of an ambush.

The loyalists hold the strategic high ground along the ridges overlooking a desert valley called Wadi Zeitoun that divides the town between northern and southern sections.

The two sides have clashed for days after former rebels made a push toward Bani Walid and Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte to try to break weeks of stalemate and crush the dug-in fighters loyal to the fugitive leader.

While Sirte would be a major symbolic prize, Bani Walid has proven particularly difficult for revolutionary forces

“The remaining three pockets of resistance that are controlled by pro Gadhafi forces are going to be tough for the new interim government forces to take,” said Dr. Walid Phares, an expert on Middle East and author of "The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.

He said the islamist militias in the new government are now more concerned about consolidating their own forces. “They don’t want to take the risk of losing. They would like NATO and the regular units of the rebels to do the job for them.”

Phares said that NATO’s role was clearer a few months ago when Gadhafi forces were in power and the goal was to protect civilians but now the situation has been reversed and the civilians who are under threat are in the pro-Gadhafi enclaves.

“NATO is in a dilemma,” he said, adding “If they continue to bomb those enclaves supportive of Gadhafi and there are civilian casualties, NATO won’t have the same legitimacy it had before.”

It is in the interest of NATO, he said, to see the interim government of Libya doing the job by negotiations or by other means as NATO’S role diminishes.

“Things are not easy; things are not solved yet in Libya,” Phares said, noting that "if in the next few months enclaves  of resistance remain or if there is a split between the islamists and the secularists in Libya then the United Nations is going to be facing another problem of a divided government."

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