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, NA TO 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 entry of anti-Gadhafi forces into Tripoli, 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's 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 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.
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That the rebels could take control of the country didn't begin to appear possible until June, experts said.
"It began when the rebels opened a western front" in June, said Mark Perry, a military and political analyst. 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.
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 for the ease with which the rebels had entered the capital. Appearing late Monday night at the hotel where foreign journalists are housed, Saif Gadhafi said government troops had "let" the rebels enter Tripoli.