The officials also said that coordination between NATO and the rebels, and among the loosely organized rebel groups themselves, had become more sophisticated and lethal in recent weeks, even though NATO’s mandate has been merely to protect civilians, not to take sides in the conflict.
NATO’s targeting grew increasingly precise, one senior NATO diplomat said, as the United States established around-the-clock surveillance over the dwindling areas that Libyan military forces still controlled, using armed Predator drones to detect, track and occasionally fire at those forces.
At the same time, Britain, France and other nations deployed special forces on the ground inside Libya to help train and arm the rebels, the diplomat and another official said.
“We always knew there would be a point where the effectiveness of the government forces would decline to the point where they could not effectively command and control their forces,” said the diplomat, who was granted anonymity to discuss confidential details of the battle inside Tripoli.
“At the same time,” the diplomat said, “the learning curve for the rebels, with training and equipping, was increasing. What we’ve seen in the past two or three weeks is these two curves have crossed.”
Through Saturday, NATO and its allies had flown 7,459 strike missions, or sorties, attacking thousands of targets, from individual rocket launchers to major military headquarters. The cumulative effect not only destroyed Libya’s military infrastructure but also greatly diminished the ability of Colonel Qaddafi’s commanders to control forces, leaving even committed fighting units unable to move, resupply or coordinate operations.
On Saturday, the last day NATO reported its strikes, the alliance flew only 39 sorties against 29 targets, 22 of them in Tripoli. In the weeks after the initial bombardments in March, by contrast, the allies routinely flew 60 or more sorties a day.
“NATO got smarter,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst with the RAND Corporation who follows Libya closely. “The strikes were better controlled. There was better coordination in avoiding collateral damage.” The rebels, while ill-trained and poorly organized even now, made the most of NATO’s direct and indirect support, becoming more effective in selecting targets and transmitting their location, using technology provided by individual NATO allies, to NATO’s targeting team in Italy.
“The rebels certainly have our phone number,” the diplomat said. “We have a much better picture of what’s happening on the ground.”
Rebel leaders in the west credited NATO with thwarting an attempt on Sunday by Qaddafi loyalists to reclaim Zawiyah with a flank assault on the city.
Administration officials greeted the developments with guarded elation that the overthrow of a reviled dictator would vindicate the demands for democracy that have swept the Arab world.
A State Department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said that President Obama, who was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, and other senior American officials were following events closely.
Privately, many officials cautioned that it could still be several days or weeks before Libya’s military collapses or Colonel Qaddafi and his inner circle abandon the fight. As Saddam Hussein and his sons did in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, the Libyan leader could hold on and lead an insurgency from hiding even after the capital fell, the officials said.
“Trying to predict what this guy is going to do is very, very difficult,” a senior American military officer said.
A senior administration official said the United States had evidence that other members of Colonel Qaddafi’s inner circle were negotiating their own exits, but there was no reliable information on the whereabouts or state of mind of Colonel Qaddafi. Audio recordings released by Colonel Qaddafi on Sunday night, which expressed defiance, were of limited use in discerning his circumstances.
Even if Colonel Qaddafi were to be deposed, there is no clear plan for political succession or maintaining security in the country. “The leaders I’ve talked to do not have a clear understanding how this will all play out,” said the senior officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain diplomatic relationships.
The United States is already laying plans for a post-Qaddafi Libya. Jeffrey D. Feltman, an assistant secretary of state, was in Benghazi over the weekend for meetings with the rebels’ political leadership about overseeing a stable, democratic transition. A senior administration official said that the United States wanted to reinforce the message of rebel leaders that they seek an inclusive transition that would bring together all the segments of Libyan society.
“Even as we welcome the fact that Qaddafi’s days are numbered and we want to see him go as quickly as possible, we also want to send a message that the goal should be the protection of civilians,” the official said.
The administration was making arrangements to bring increased medical supplies and other humanitarian aid into Libya.
With widespread gunfire in the streets of Tripoli, Human Rights Watch cautioned NATO to take measures to guard against the kind of bloody acts of vengeance, looting and other violence that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government.
“Everyone should be ready for the prospect of a very quick, chaotic transition,” said Tom Malinowski, the director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch.