AJDABIYA, Libya - Muammar Qaddafi's forces lobbed artillery shells at rebels regrouping outside a strategic eastern city, forcing a band of fighters to scatter and signaling a prolonged battle as the U.S. said it was shifting its focus to widening a no-fly zone across the North African country.
The first round of the allied assault over the weekend smashed a column of regime tanks that had been moving on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the east, reversing the government's advance and allowing the rebels to barrel to west, vowing to break a siege on Ajdabiya, a city of 140,000 that is the gateway to the east.
The ragtag band of hundreds of fighters who made their way to the outskirts of Ajdabiya on Tuesday milled about, clutching mortars, grenades and assault rifles. Some wore khaki fatigues. One man sported a bright white studded belt.
Some men clambered up power lines in the rolling sand dunes of the desert, squinting toward the city and hoping to see Qaddafi's forces.
"Qaddafi is killing civilians inside Ajdabiya," said Khaled Hamid, a rebel who said he been in Qaddafi's forces but defected to the rebels' side. "Today we will enter Ajdabiya, God willing."
But even with the help of the U.S. air force, the rebels are still something less than an effective fighting force, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips. The group was forced to flee in jeeps and trucks when they came under fire from regime forces but later returned and clustered in the same area - a pattern that has become common as the rebels fight to seize the momentum as the regime's forces and air defenses are pounded by international strikes.
An Associated Press reporter heard planes flying heard overhead followed by four thuds, but it was cloudy and it wasn't possible to confirm what caused them.
Disorganization among the rebels could hamper their attempts to exploit the turn of events. Since the uprising began on Feb. 15, the opposition has been made up of disparate groups even as it took control of the entire east of the country.
Regular citizens - residents of the "liberated" areas - took up arms and formed a highly enthusiastic but undisciplined force that in the past weeks has charged ahead to fight Qaddafi forces, only to be beaten back by superior firepower. Regular army units that joined the rebellion have proven stronger, more organized fighters, but only a few units have joined the battles while many have stayed behind as officers struggle to get together often antiquated, limited equipment and form a coordinated force.
A rebel commander who defected from the Libyan special forces said a lot of professional ex-soldiers also had poured into Ajdabiya and the nearby oil port city of Brega starting Monday, encircling the Qaddafi forces to disrupt their supply lines as the airstrikes had leveled the playing field.
"If not for the West we would not have been able to push forward," said Ahmed Buseifi, a 32-year-old dressed in fatigues and boots. "I'm pinpointing where their forces are and their tanks and passing it up the chain of command."
He complained the large number of so-called citizen soldiers were only getting in the way.
"It's making it difficult to do our job. It's important to take care of their lives," he said.
The air campaign by U.S. and European militaries that began Saturday has unquestionably rearranged the map in Libya and rescued rebels from the immediate threat they faced only days ago of being crushed under a powerful advance by Qaddafi's forces.
Monday night, Libyan state TV said a new round of strikes had begun in the capital, Tripoli, marking the third night of bombardment. Qaddafi forces sprayed the night sky with anti-aircraft fire even though they couldn't see any targets, reports Phillips. Crowds of people that pro-Qaddafi officials say have volunteered to act as human shields have gathered at potential strike sites in an effort to deter attacks and to provide officially approved rhetoric.
While the airstrikes can stop Qaddafi's troops from attacking rebel cities - in line with the U.N. mandate to protect civilians - the United States, at least, appeared deeply reluctant to go beyond that toward actively helping the rebel cause to oust the Libyan leader.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others said the U.S. military's role will lessen in coming days as other countries take on more missions and the need declines for large-scale offensive action like the barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles fired Saturday and Sunday mainly by U.S. ships and submarines off Libya's coast.
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified data, said Monday that the attacks thus far had reduced Libya's air defense capabilities by more than 50 percent. That has enabled the coalition to focus more on extending the no-fly zone, which is now mainly over the coastal waters off Libya and around the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the east, across the country to the Tripoli area this week.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle jet crashed in Libya, the U.S. military said Tuesday. Both crew members ejected and were safe after sustaining minor injuries. Officials said mechanical issues were behind the crash.
Even though the air strikes have knocked out all of Libya's fixed surface-to-air missile sites and all of their radar equipment that would guide them, there are still mobile surface-to-air missile capabilities, including shoulder-fired missiles, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin. However, those usually cannot reach as high as American jets fly - U.S. aircraft has the ability to bomb from more than 20,000 feet.
In his first public comments on the crisis, Army Gen. Carter Ham, the lead U.S. commander, said it was possible that Qaddafi might manage to retain power.
"I don't think anyone would say that is ideal," the general said Monday, foreseeing a possible outcome that stands in contrast to President Barack Obama's declaration that Qaddafi must go.
The Libyan leader has ruled the North African nation for more than four decades and was a target of American air attacks in 1986.