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Even with US airstrikes, a struggle to oust Islamic State from Libya

A Libyan army soldier moves along a road within the range of sniper fire in Sirte, Libya, on Aug. 5, 2016.

LORENZO TUGNOLI/THE WASHINGTON POST

By SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN | The Washington Post | Published: August 7, 2016

SIRTE, Libya — The black flag of the Islamic State flutters above a two-story house that serves as a sniper's nest. The deserted street is under their control, as are all the nearby buildings. The banner and the occasional crack of the marksman's bullet are the onlysigns of the militants on this afternoon.

Two blocks north, less than a football field away, Libyan militiamen are gathered with hand-held rocket launchers and Mad Max-style pickup trucks mounted with large machine guns. Since Monday, U.S. airstrikes have pounded Islamic State targets in this battered seaside city, the stronghold of the Middle Eastern militants' Libyan affiliate. Yet the pro-government militia forces have not crossed this front line.

"If we move forward, their snipers will be firing at us like hell," said Suleiman Shwairf, a pro-government fighter, peering at the flag from behind a wall Friday.

The American air intervention has altered the military equation on the ground and given a much-needed boost to the morale of the fighters battling the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But in a densely packed urban environment, where territory is seized street by street and house by house, eradicating the militants from Sirte remains a formidable struggle, illuminating the limits of the U.S. air campaign.

The fall of Sirte could be a major setback to the ambitions of the Islamic State. But since May, when the campaign to liberate Sirte began, the militias have been confronted with a sophisticated and coordinated strategy used by ISIS fighters to protect their bastion in Sirte's urban center. Hundreds of pro-government fighters have been killed or wounded by buried mines, explosive-laden doors, trip-wire bombs, suicide attackers and snipers. The Islamic State remains in control of roughly 70 percent of the city's urban area over a stretch of four miles.

In their first week, U.S. airstrikes have mostly targeted ISIS tanks and armored personnel carriers, as well as mobile ammunition depots and rocket launchers. Now, the Islamist fighters are altering their tactics to counter the air assault, hiding their military vehicles, moving command posts frequently, and staying out of sight during the day, according to pro-government commanders.

"The armored personnel carriers, the tanks are not their strongest weapons, anyway,"said Mohamed Darat, the top commander for the largest front-line in the city. "Their strongest weapons are the land mines, booby-traps, and the snipers. Those are the biggest problems we face."

Still, of the several thousand ISIS militants initially in the city, most have either fled or been killed. Only an estimated 500 to 1,000 remain, and they are surrounded - by pro-government forces on land and Libyan vessels patrolling the sea. Add the American air support, and a long-term hold on Sirte by the militants seems implausible.

The questions many Libyans ask: When will the city fall? And at what human cost?

In early 2015, the Islamic State seized this sprawling metropolis in the heart of Libya's oil crescent, home to most of its petrochemical resources. The birthplace of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the city was the last major stronghold of his loyalists during the revolution five years ago that toppled his regime. Gadhafi was killed here by rebel fighters in October 2011.

The Islamic State swiftly consolidated its grip on Sirte, using it as a base to stage attacks on oil facilities and other targets. With pressure growing on militants' parent body in Syria and Iraq from U.S. airstrikes and attacks by Iraqi forces, Sirte was viewed as a possible future capital of the ISIS "caliphate."

It was those ambitions that triggered the current fighting here. When ISIS fighters advanced west up the coast in May, militia brigades from the nearby city of Misurata counterattacked. Within days, they had pushed the militants back inside Sirte, retaken the outer suburbs of the city and pushed into the urban zones.

Then their advance slowed.

The ISIS forces, a mix of foreigners and Libyans, were pummeling the brigades with tank and artillery fire.The land mines and snipers were planted on streets, at hospitals, universities and other large complexes. The militants had cached weapons, as well as supplies of food and water, in different parts of their territory.

The militants also are using creative ways to kill. They have jury-rigged refrigerators to blow up when militia fighters search houses. Bombs are planted inside bags of bread and left in visible places for their enemy to pick up. They have transformed baby monitors into voice-activated bomb triggers, and used paper clips touched together to ignite explosives.

"They are using the most devious and inhuman ways to kill our fighters," Darat said.

In the past three months, some 400 militiamen have died, with more than 2,000 injured, according to doctors at a military field hospital outside the city. There was also anger and frustration among the fighters, who had felt abandoned by the United States and the West.

The mounting casualties and military stalemate in the city prompted Libya's Western-backed national unity government to request the U.S. airstrikes last week.

"Now, we're friends," said Ahmad Mletan, 35, a doctor at the military field hospital."The American support legitimizes our cause. We feel we are no longer alone, and the international community is with us."

But on the front lines, the U.S. intervention, while welcome, remains bittersweet.

"It's a little late," Darat said. "If the Americans started supporting us from the beginning, we would have saved so many lives."

Today, Sirte is a ghost city.

Nearly its entire population of 80,000 has fled. Buildings are pocked with grapefruit- sized holes from artillery rounds. Houses have been shattered by crossfire. Locked-up shops and businesses have black stamps on their walls reading in English and Arabic: "Office of General Services."

It is from the ISIS tax collection department.

In one neighborhood, pro-government fighters took down a make-shift cross at a traffic circle where ISIS used to execute and crucify residents. In another enclave, they found an ISIS prison where detainees were tortured and a grave that contained nine bodies, Darat said.

The militants are now entrenched in several large urban neighborhoods and in the Ouagadougou conference center,which Gadhafi had used to host African Union meetings and other international summits.

They are also on the edge of al-Dollar, a residential enclave named because of its opulent mansions and which has become the primary front line. Militia fighters have taken over the empty houses, moving in mattresses and supplies, and have set up rooftop firing positions.

Roads are blocked by stacked shipping containers that mark the boundaries between the two sides. Signs read: "Danger. There are snipers." And two days before the U.S. airstrikes began, a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a house, steps from Darat's command center. On Friday, pieces of the assailant's body were still on the ground.

The U.S. airstrikes have helped Darat's men to some degree. He said that Monday, he coordinated with the Misurata military operations room working with the U.S. forces to call in a strike on an ISIS sniper's nest in a house. And on Wednesday, he asked for an attack on an ISIS anti-tank gun. In both cases, he said, "our American friends" struck the targets.

Only 10 mortar rounds have landed in al-Dollar since the U.S. campaign began. The week before, the enclave was regularly struck by tank fire, rockets and other artillery. Now that has all disappeared. The ISIS fighters are keeping a low profile, apparently waiting out the air campaign, Darat said.

Still, on Thursday, an ISIS sniper killed a militia fighter here. And on Friday, a bullet from an ISIS position hit a nearby mosque, prompting the militia fighters to return fire with heavy machine guns.

What Darat wants most is to cross the main road, less than 200 feet from his command center, and push farther into ISIS territory. On the other side of the road, ISIS fighters control a hospital complex and a hospitality center once used by Gadhafi to host dignitaries.

But the area is sown with land mines and booby traps.

And Darat is running out of mine specialists. His best engineer was killed recently when he tried to move a corpse. ISIS fighters had planted a bomb under the body. Many of Darat's remaining mine specialists are either traumatized or unwilling to push forward into ISIS terrain.

He recently considered sending 1,000 sheep across the road to get blown up by the mines - and clear the way. But he decided that would be too brutal, he said.

And as U.S. airstrikes keep targeting ISIS's weaponry, there could be an unintended consequence. Darat's intelligence operatives have noticed more ISIS fighters moving at night. And that, he fears, could make his goal of crossing the road more complicated.

"Now, Daesh knows they can't use so many heavy weapons against us without the Americans attacking them," Darat said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. "They will plant even more land mines. They are running out of options."

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