The battle for ISIL’s last base in Libya has reached its endgame, as the US intensifies air strikes on Sirte and forces aligned with the UN-backed unity government drive deep into militant-held suburbs.
Fighting broke out on Thursday in District One, the last section of the coastal town held by the militants, who are fighting back with sniper fire and attempted suicide bombings.
Libyan ground forces, mostly units from Misurata that are aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA), first entered the town on June 9, but soon became bogged down in street fighting. On August 1, America launched its Operation Odyssey Lightning bombing campaign to support the ground forces, which may prove to be the key to their victory.
On Thursday last week, air strikes weakened militant units enough for the Libyan ground operation, named Bonyan Al Marsous (Solid Structure), to capture ISIL’s Sirte headquarters – the concrete Ouagadougou conference centre.
On Wednesday, ISIL sent volunteers in cars and jeeps packed with explosives towards the Libyan lines. However, at least two such vehicle suicide bombs were destroyed by Bonyan Al Marsous fighters before they reached their targets.
No US air power has so far been deployed in Benghazi, partly because the struggle is politically complex. ISIL forces there are allied with the Shura Council, a militia force that is in turn allied with the same Misurata fighters who are aligned with the GNA. These Misurata fighters are bitterly opposed to the Tobruk parliament – the GNA’s rival.
In both the battle for Sirte and the battle for Benghazi, Libyan forces have been handicapped by a lack of accurate artillery and mobile armour to protect their units within the town and city’s dense networks of buildings and rubble.
As pro-GNA forces advanced in Sirte, they discovered a labyrinth of tunnels constructed by ISIL, seizing documents and computer hard drives with valuable intelligence.
On Sunday, the GNA said it had passed documents to Italy that were found in the Sirte rubble, detailing an ISIL network operating in Milan.
There was optimism among Bonyan Al Marsous commanders on Thursday that ISIL’s days in Libya, where a year ago the extremist group had four bases and controlled 125 kilometres of territory around Sirte, were numbered. But the cost has been heavy, and Misurata has reported more than 300 dead and 1,500 wounded on its own side in the Sirte fighting.
There is also every possibility that ISIL – which has struck at targets in the capital, Tripoli, in the past – may remain in Libya as a guerrilla force.
The US has its own reasons for wanting a speedy end to the Sirte campaign. The Obama administration said the green light for the Libya strikes came from a 2001 congressional authorisation passed to allow the bombing of Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorism attacks.
Adding to the chaos, pro-GNA militias turned on each other this week in the capital, with a Tripoli-based militia capturing the unity government’s intelligence headquarters that had been held by another GNA-affiliated militia from Misurata.