TRIPOLI - Battles in the North African desert can conjure up World War II images of Rommel and Montgomery throwing massive tank formations at each other in some of the most legendary confrontations of modern warfare. That is not what is happening in Libya now.
Rather, the initial advance of the anti-Qaddafi rebels, which stalled at a fly-blown roadside town known as Bin Jawad, was accomplished by relatively small numbers of irregular militias, whose heaviest weaponry is anti-aircraft machine guns mounted on pick up trucks, but who had surprise and fervour on their side.
The regime calls its opponents "gangs" and while this is meant to belittle the opposition and undermine its image among the general population, it is one of the few public pronouncements by the government that has the ring of some authenticity to it.
The rebels' numbers were never very high. Saif al-Islam, Muammar Qaddafi's most politically active son, told us in an interview he thought there were 800 to 1000 rebels still fighting late last week. Saif often has a peculiar take on reality, but in this case, he may be more or less right. Even if he's out by a factor or two or three, it's still not a lot.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the pro-Qaddafi counter-attack has been accomplished with something less than what we understand to be a regular army as well. On a trip to the eastern front organized by the regime's stuttering public relations machine, there was little evidence of major troop movements or set piece battles having been fought. Nor was there much sign of supply lines running in support of advancing battalions. Instead the roadside featured perhaps a few dozen burned out rebel vehicles. And the towns - Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf - were scarred with barely a handful of buildings showing signs of having been blasted by government tank or rocket fire. The towering plume of black smoke rising from the Ras Lanuf oil refinery was the exception. It hangs in the air, stretching to the western horizon like a dark cloud of bad news. Still, the rest of the facility appeared to be intact.
The pro-Qaddafi advance has followed a pattern. Qaddafi air force jets drop some bombs on or near rebel positions and many of the fighters quickly lose their zeal and withdraw. The open desert countryside offers no real cover. Then a Katyusha rocket salvo or two are fired, along with some tank artillery. In the face of even this level of bombardment, the choice for the rebels is to stay and risk being blown to pieces or drop back. They drop back.
The rebels say the Qaddafi loyalists have been shelling their positions from the sea and are using amphibious landings to encircle them, but there has been no independent verification that that is happening. The stories, though, make the rebels even more skittish.
Without air cover, without any serious anti-aircraft defence, and without the NATO enforced no-fly-zone, for which they have been they have been pleading, the rebels are completely exposed. And lacking any credible anti-tank weaponry, they have no answer to the relatively modest government force they're facing. This is not a fair fight. Rebels complain they never even see their enemy to be able to shoot at them. They're getting a quick lesson in how warfare really works and it's a lot less romantic than they thought.
An exception to this pattern was the government re-conquest of Zawiyah, the town just 30 miles west of Tripoli, which had become a huge embarrassment to Muammar Qaddafi. How could a small 'gang of criminals' control a substantial city - pre-rebellion population; 200,000 -- right on the capital's doorstep? The longer the rebels held out, the more difficult it would be for the regime to maintain the myth of universal popular support for The Brother Leader... let alone the myth of invincibility.
A rebel force estimated at somewhere between seventy and a couple of hundred had taken over the town in the early stages of the uprising and held it through repeated government armored attacks. The most feared unit in the army - the Kamis Brigade, named for and led by another of Qaddafi's sons, was sent in.
The rebels retreated to the main square and took up positions behind makeshift barricades and on the upper floors of surrounding buildings. But in the end, as large shell holes in those buildings attest, superior firepower told. Zawiyah may not have been Stalingrad, but its center is so badly shot up that no amount of green and white victory bunting can hide the fact that some serious fighting took place here.