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Despite grounded air force, Libyan troops still on attack

By Chris Lawrence and Pam Benson, CNN
Libyans gather March 21 at a site near Benghazi where Gadhafi's forces were targeted by a French air strike.
Libyans gather March 21 at a site near Benghazi where Gadhafi's forces were targeted by a French air strike.
  • Gadhafi's elite ground forces are well-paid, well-equipped
  • Those troops fight within cities, where coalition can't easily get them

Washington (CNN) -- The Libyan military has been pounded by coalition airstrikes neutralizing its air capabilities but it is still able to fight and maneuver on the ground, U.S. officials said.

The Libyan Air Force has been grounded after five days of operations by the coalition forces. More than 160 Tomahawk missiles and several hundred strikes from fighter jets have virtually destroyed Moammar Gadhafi's air defense.

The toll on the air system is "to the point where we can operate with near impunity across Libya," said Vice Marshall Greg Bagwell of Britain's Royal Air Force.

Despite the targeting of mobile launchers, Libyan forces still have numerous mobile launchers that could pose a risk to coalition planes.

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But it's the ground forces where Gadhafi has more maneuverability because of the coalition's limitations in fighting Libyan forces only from the air.

Gadhafi's forces have retreated from the eastern city of Benghazi, but continue to fight in other cities including Misrata and Ajabiya using "tanks, artillery, rocket launchers," according to Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, chief of staff for the coalition Odyssey Dawn.

The coalition is able to strike at forces moving toward cities, but once they are inside city limits, dropping bombs with enough precision to avoid civilian casualties is difficult.

Before the war, Libya had about 500 mortars and 2,400 pieces of artillery. Gadhafi had close to 2,000 tanks and armored vehicles to move around, but much was poorly maintained.

Libya's elite forces come from tribes loyal to Gadhafi, dedicated to protecting the regime. The 32nd Brigade, for instance, is commanded by one of Gadhafi's sons. Those forces total, at most, 10,000 men. They are better paid and better equipped, said Gawdat Bahgat, a military analyst at National Defense University, with tanks and conventional weapons.

Those elite forces are on the offense. U.S. surveillance planes have seen some attacks by the elite units.

"Those forces are fully engaged in this conflict, that are attacking those civilian populations," Hueber said.

The Gadhafi forces remain capable of carrying out attacks on the opposition, a U.S. official told CNN.

They are relatively well organized and continue to fight effectively in certain parts of the country, said the unnamed official, who is not authorized to speak on the record.

The rebels have gained some additional battle space due to coalition efforts, the official said. Rebels are in a better position than they were a few days ago, but the Gadhafi forces have the upper edge at this point in time, the official said.

However, where possible, the coalition is hitting the forces on the ground, arguing it is within the mission of protecting civilians.

"Gadhafi's forces are feeling the strain of several weeks of fighting without any resupply," the official said.

"In Ajdabiya to Misurata, our targeted priorities are mechanized forces, those mobile integrated -- those mobile surface-to-air missile sites, interdicting their lines of communications which supply their beans and their bullets, their command-and-control, and any opportunities for sustainment of that activity," Hueber said Wednesday.

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