Monday, August 08, 2016

Retaking Sirte, Opposing ISIL

"If we move forward, their snipers will be firing at us like hell."
Suleiman Shwairf, pro-government fighter, Sirte, Libya

"The armoured personnel carriers, the tanks are not their strongest weapons, anyway. Their strongest weapons are the landmines, booby-traps, and the snipers."
"Those are the biggest problems we face."
"They are using the most devious and inhuman ways to kill our fighters."
"It's a little late. If the Americans started supporting us from the beginning, we would have saved so many lives."
Mohamed Darat, top commander, front-line, Sirte

"Now, we're friends. The American support legitimizes our cause. We feel we are no longer alone, and the international community is with us."
Ahmad Mletan, 35, military field hospital doctor, Sirte
Libyan fighters says they have advanced against ISIL in the flash point city of Sirte [Goran Tomasevic/Reuters]
Libyan fighters says they have advanced against ISIL in the flash point city of Sirte [Goran Tomasevic/Reuters]
The Western-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord appealed to the United States to intervene in its pro-government militias' battle against Islamic State in its Libyan stronghold of Sirte, and the U.S. air fleet in the region complied. It does have an obligation, after all, since it was also involved in the popular Libyan tribal militias' uprising against Muammar Ghadafi, which led to the birfucation of the country and its two governments.

Islamic State's black flags still fly above buildings in the ISIL-occupied city. But militias from the revolutionary groups supporting the Government of National Accord are making headway despite the obstacles that Islamic State is so famed for; IEDs and bombs in the unlikeliest places. The militias are responding with hand-held rocket launchers and pickup trucks with large machine guns mounted on them, while American jets pound ISIL targets.

With the U.S. intervention this week, the situation has been altered and morale among the fighters has been boosted. Still, it is the militias fighting street by street with heavy casualties, that are pushing back the terrorists. The campaign to free Sirte from ISIL possession has been months in the making. ISIL fighters have used all the strategies they've been made infamous for, to defend their urban bastion, killing hundreds in the process.

Buried mines, doors with hidden explosives, tripwire bombs, suicide attacks and snipers have all taken their deadly toll and the wounded are numerous. The city stretches to over six kilometres and over 70 percent of its area is still in ISIL control. The first of the American air strikes hit ISIL tanks and armoured personnel carriers, mobile ammunition depots and rocket launchers.

Lesson learned; Islamist fighters have responded by hiding military vehicles and shifting their command posts about while remaining in interiors during the daylight hours. An estimated few thousand ISIL militants had defended the city, many of whom have since left or remain behind, dead. Now, an estimated 500 to one thousand ISIL fighters remain, to defend their presence in the city.
Forces loyal to Libya's UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) are seen during clashes with militants of the Daesh Takfiri terrorist group on the western outskirts of Sirte, on June 2, 2016. (AFP)
Forces loyal to Libya's UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) are seen during clashes with militants of the Daesh Takfiri terrorist group on the western outskirts of Sirte, on June 2, 2016. (AFP)

With the Americans providing air support, pro-government forces steadily approaching on land, and Libyan ships on patrol in the sea, it appears that the end approaches for Islamic State's stronghold in Sirte. When ISIL took the city in early 2015 the area was home to much of the country's petrochemical resources. It was where Gadhafi's loyalists made their last stand, the city of his birth.

It has, since 2015 represented ISIL's attack base on oil facilities. As far as Islamic State was concerned, Sirte would be an alternate capital for the Caliphate. Now, a mix of foreign jihadis and Libyans who together comprise the Libyan ISIL forces, attack pro-government brigades with tank and artillery fire. Snipers still hit their mark from atop houses, hospitals and large complexes, complementing the deadly effect of the landmines.

And if Islamic State is celebrated  for one thing, it is the inventiveness of their atrocities. Refrigerators have been rigged to explode when militia fighters search houses, and bombs are placed inside bags of bread, left for the enemy to reach toward. Baby monitors have been altered to become voice-activated bomb triggers. It was the mounting casualties that resulted from confronting ISIL that led the Western-backed national unity government to ask for U.S. intervention.

Sirte's original population of 80000 has mostly fled. The city's structures are now wounded urban infrastructures with gaping wounds resulting from artillery rounds, and shattered houses abounding, while closed-up shops and businesses host black stamps on their walls that read in English and Arabic: "Office of General Services" indicating the ISIL tax collection department.

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