Within the last 10 days, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's loyalist forces have modified their combat tactics.
Gadhafi's henchmen are now using trucks instead of tanks for transport. This shift was forced upon them -- coalition air power has turned Gadhafi's tanks into death traps. However, another new tactic his thugs are employing -- so-called human shields -- is a war crime, pure and simple, and an example of the tyrant's calculated depravity.
Prior to March 19, the day the coalition began air operations, Gadhafi used his air force as long-range artillery to attack rebel units and as a terror weapon to attack unprotected civilians. His air force also gave him the power to threaten key economic infrastructure, such as oil fields and refineries. Within 24 to 48 hours of the first coalition sorties, Gadhafi's air force was no longer a factor in the war. Today, if Gadhafi loyalists still possess combat aircraft, they are hidden in shelters.
Sheltered aircraft are not bombing rebel cities, nor are they providing air cover for the dictator's ground forces. Before March 19, Gadhafi's tanks and armored personnel carriers gave his ground forces an enormous combat advantage. Loyalist tanks would quickly advance from town to town along the coastal highway, then swing into the desert to strike rebel positions from the flank. The tanks would then enter rebel towns and turn their cannons on defenseless neighborhoods.
Over the last two and a half weeks, however, NATO strike aircraft using advanced sensors and smart weapons have hammered Gadhafi's armor.
So Gadhafi's field commanders are mimicking Libyan rebel tactics. They are using pick-up trucks and sport utility vehicles to move soldiers. This tactical change has an obvious downside. Light machine guns and mortars can stop these unarmored vehicles. The rebels have faced that problem, now the loyalists confront it.
Gadhafi's upside, however, is a reduction in the effectiveness of coalition air power. Coalition pilots must now answer a crucial question: Is the vehicle we are targeting a rebel SUV or one belonging to Gadhafi?
Confusing pilots buys Gadhafi thugs time to hide and avoid air attack. Last week, coalition aircraft accidentally bombed and killed rebel fighters. Gadhafi hopes this will occur again, as coalition pilots attack rebel trucks by mistake. Gadhafi hopes to exploit these battlefield mistakes and drive political wedges between the rebels and the coalition.
According to statements made by NATO briefing officers, Gadhafi's loyalists are also making increased use of human shields.
Human shield is a euphemism for a hostage placed between an attacking force and legitimate military targets. Saddam Hussein employed them. Many of Saddam's human shields were European volunteers who came to Iraq to handcuff themselves to buildings so that Americans wouldn't bomb them. Saddam got propaganda mileage from these "useful idiots" (to use the Cold War phrase), as they spewed peacenik slogans to story-hungry reporters.
Outfits like Hamas and Hezbollah also deploy human shields, though their hostages are not volunteers. "Involuntary martyrdom" describes the fate of the hostages Hezbollah uses to screen its rocket-launching sites in Lebanon from Israeli attack. When the Israelis hit the sites -- to stop the rockets from blasting Israeli towns -- photos of dead Arab civilians appear on websites accusing the Israelis of war crimes. Using human shields is the real war crime. Hezbollah and Hamas are essentially taking their own civilian populations hostage.
That may be what we are witnessing in Libya, except it's likely many of Gadhafi's hostage-takers are foreign mercenaries taking Libyan citizens hostage, so Gadhafi may not get the propaganda victory Hamas and Hezbollah cynically reap.
NATO officers, however, state categorically that when NATO aircraft identify any civilians in a target zone, they abort their mission and do not attack. For Gadhafi's gangsters and hired guns, that's victory enough.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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