WASHINGTON — The Libyan rebels' seemingly effortless blitz into a poorly protected Tripoli was a culmination of several pivotal changes in a six-month conflict: They became better fighters, NATO forces became savvier allies and Moammar Gadhafi's loyalists realized that his regime was destined to collapse, NATO and U.S. military officials said Monday.
Offering their first analysis of the stunning fall of Gadhafi's 42-year regime, officials said that what began as a slog and stalemate evolved into a series of catalyzing gains over the past two weeks. On their own they went largely unnoticed, but the gains came together over the weekend as the formerly faltering rebel fighters saturated Tripoli on Sunday with thousands of ground troops.
Some rebels walked into the capital; others came from towns they'd seized just days earlier, such as Zawiya, Gharyan and Surman. Another 1,000 or so arrived by sea from Misrata — wrested from Gadhafi forces months ago after fierce fighting — and flanked Tripoli on the west before moving in by foot.
Rather than confront Gadhafi's best forces, those thousands of armed rebels instead moved relatively easily to just outside his main compound in downtown Tripoli. Once inside the capital, they captured three of Gadhafi's sons — although one reportedly escaped custody Monday — and were consolidating their grip over the city despite sporadic clashes with pro-Gadhafi holdouts.
That the rebels could take control of the country one day didn't begin to appear possible until June, experts said.
"I think there is always a tipping point. There is always that moment that there is a breakthrough, and it usually happens when two or three variables come together," said Mark Perry, a military and political analyst who's written eight books.
"It began when the rebels opened a western front" in June, Perry added. It continued, he said, as they finally got their hands on arms from some NATO nations and Qatar — the Persian Gulf state that emerged as one of the opposition's main supporters — and developed a command-and-control structure.
For months, the inexperienced rebels had rushed headlong into new territory only to be driven out within days or hours. Now they began holding on to gains.
Despite flagging support in some member nations, NATO continued its bombing campaign, steadily weakening Gadhafi's military capabilities to ensure that the rebels had a chance to move forward. Covert NATO surveillance operations — including by unmanned U.S. drones — increasingly helped the rebels gather intelligence on what was happening in and around Tripoli, including the movements of pro-regime forces, a NATO official said.
In the last few weeks, having decimated Gadhafi's military, NATO began targeting Gadhafi's logistics and command and control centers, the official said.
"The command and control function is the most important thing," Perry said. "Once that is perfected or controlled, everything else flows from there."
The rebel effort also turned on a few personalities. Perhaps the most enigmatic figure was former military commander Abdel Fatah Younes, whose assassination July 28 seemed at first as if it might derail the rebel fight. But instead it appeared somehow to embolden them.
Some, including officials within NATO and the U.S. military, suspect that Younes — Gadhafi's former interior minister, who defected days after the uprising began — was actively hindering the rebel efforts. Others wonder whether he was simply ineffective.
In the midst of their jubilation, rebels said Monday that Younes' death gave them a greater sense of purpose.
"We gave him a present for his sacrifice," said Col. Ahmed Bani, a rebel spokesman.
Saif Gadhafi, Moammar Gadhafi's son and heir apparent, offered a different explanation when he appeared late Monday night at the hotel where foreign journalists are housed in Tripoli. Clearly not in rebel custody, as rebels had claimed earlier, Saif offered an alternative explanation for the ease with which the rebels had entered.
He said government troops had "let" the rebels enter Tripoli.
The fight to overthrow Gadhafi began in February in Libya's second-largest city, Benghazi, as a push along a long coastal highway toward Tripoli. Given the relatively speedy resignations of longtime leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, some assumed that it would be a quick effort.
But after three months rebels couldn't hold anything past the oil-rich eastern city of Brega, just 100 miles outside Benghazi, even as NATO launched an aggressive campaign on Gadhafi's air power and weapons supply.
The rebels struggled to arm themselves, develop a leadership structure and train their troops amid pressure to move fighters to the front lines. They struggled even to make formations. Some shot themselves with the first weapons they'd ever held. Some privately questioned Younes' loyalty.
The rebels attempted to move west toward the coastal city of Misrata, where other rebels fought from their homes and Gadhafi forces deployed snipers in abandoned buildings.
By June, the rebels opened a second front in the western Nafusa Mountains. Facing a daily barrage of NATO attacks on his military, all but destroying his air defenses, Gadhafi found himself splitting his troops between east and west.
The rebels, with some foreign training, slowly advanced northwest toward Tripoli while Gadhafi's forces had a firm hold on the eastern front.
Gadhafi "made the focus on Brega and forgot the western mountains, so the west was a lot easier to liberate," Bani said.
In late July, the rebels announced that a rival rebel group had assassinated Younes amid suspicions that he was working for Gadhafi. From that moment, the momentum tipped solidly toward the rebels.
They were fighting and this time holding their gains. They held the southern city of Zintan first. From there, they gained control of Gharyan, a main travel route for Gadhafi's oil supplies. In Tripoli, residents waited hours for gas and food.
It became a war of attrition, and Gadhafi loyalists started to lose faith.
"It's hard to get people to keep fighting for you if you have to stand five hours to get bread for your family," said Dirk Vandewalle, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth University who's studied Libya and traveled there last month.
Despite all the gains, one crucial city remained in Gadhafi's control: Zawiya, which sits just outside the capital.
In the early weeks of the war, when residents there brazenly attacked Gadhafi's forces, Zawiya symbolized the challenge of overthrowing the regime. Isolated as the lone rebel town amid a scattering of Gadhafi strongholds, residents there ran out of food and medical supplies. Hundreds of young men died in the streets, demoralizing the nascent movement.
Last Friday the rebels returned to Zawiya, this time with better weapons and enough ammunition. They formed front lines, flanks and organized movements, officials said. They leaned on NATO for intelligence from the air and a line of sight on Gadhafi's beleaguered forces.
They won the city quickly and marched toward the capital.
For now, it appears that only Sirte — Gadhafi's hometown in central Libya — and a small collection of towns surrounding Zuwara in the far west remain in his control. Bani said that pro-Gadhafi fighters and supporters were fleeing Sirte.
But the rebels have yet to firmly win Tripoli, and even when they do, it will only make the start of a new battle: managing Libya.
"The next 72 hours are critical. The rebels have to stop (giving) speeches and start running a country," Perry said.
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