All-out war: Libyan battles portend enduring conflict

An hour before dawn on Sunday, Tripoli also erupted in gunfire, the sounds of machine guns and heavier artillery echoing through the capital. The spark was unclear — there were rumors of a conflict within the armed Qaddafi forces — but soon Qaddafi supporters were riding through the streets waving green flags and firing guns into the air. Crowds converged on the city’s central Green Square for a rally, with many people still shooting skyward. The shots rang out for more than three hours, with occasional ambulance sirens squealing in the background…

By early afternoon Sunday, Libyan state television and government officials in Tripoli were making increasingly strong and apparently false statements about progress against the rebels. Officials said that pro-Qaddafi forces had captured the city of Misrata as well as the leaders of the rebels governing council and would soon retake the country, though rebel leaders denied all those claims. One witness their said rebel forces had surrounded a contingent of Libyan army trucks and personnel carriers after it entered the town in a battle that killed as many as nine Libyan soldiers and four rebels.

State television reported that Qaddafi forces were marching on the rebel headquarters of Benghazi. But multiple reports from the ground on the front lines and in rebel territory indicated that all those reports were false and in fact rebels were, at the very least, regrouping to try to push westward toward Surt, the town where Colonel Qaddafi was born and that blocks the rebels’ progress toward Tripoli.

Nineteen days after it began with spirited demonstrations in the eastern city of Benghazi, the Libyan uprising has veered sharply from the pattern of relatively quick and nonviolent upheavals that ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. Instead, the rebellion here has become mired in a drawn-out ground campaign between two relatively unprofessional and loosely organized forces — the Libyan Army and the rebels — that is exacting high civilian casualties and appears likely to drag on for some time.