How Libya's "Rebel Rabble" and NATO succeeded

LONDON - Libya's rebels began as an ill-equipped, poorly trained amateur force. But they got a huge boost from those NATO air strikes and surveillance. CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reports on what went right for the rebels.

The big question after the rebels' shockingly quick advance of the past days is how did something that started so badly end up going so well.

In the war's early stages, the "Rebel Rabble" earned their nickname by charging forward to take ground they would quickly lose through bad organization and bad weapons.

NATO's entry into the conflict may have taken out Muammar Qaddafi's armored units and control centers. But in close fighting, the rebels still couldn't call in the airstrikes they needed.

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"What's lacking?" Phillips asked Ahmed Shebani, a member of the opposition, just last month.

"Lacking is precision NATO strikes," he said

Shebani complained he'd have to email someone in Benghazi to call in NATO planes, which then arrived too late.

"It gets difficult to seek and destroy when [Qaddafi's forces are] moving in twos, hiding under trees camouflaged," he said.

In the advance on Tripoli, the problem seems to have been solved by removing the middleman, using U.S. drones to provide real-time intelligence and even using covert NATO special forces to call in airstrikes.

There were 68 NATO attacks on targets in Tripoli alone during the weekend.

The United Nations' mandate was to protect civilians, but NATO's mission creep in Libya became obvious even in the early stages of the conflict when some of Britain's special forces were captured near Benghazi. The longer the conflict dragged on, the greater the involvement of the Western powers became.

NATO says its commitment to "protect civilians" will continue through the war's end and possibly into the uncertainty of whatever follows.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.