Britain’s defence secretary, Liam Fox, sounded a little scripted in Misrata at the weekend when I asked him whether NATO’s airstrikes in Muammar Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte were staying within its remit to protect civilians in Libya. “NATO has been extraordinarily careful in target selection.” “NATO has been very careful to minimize civilian casualties.” “NATO has stayed within its mandate throughout.” It’s a mantra that NATO, and the countries that have contributed to its Libyan adventure, have had to learn well.  They’ve been accused of stretching the legality of the mission “to protect civilians by all necessary measures” before. But the problem with sticking to a script, is that the Libyan conflict hasn’t really progressed with any sort of predictable narrative since the fall of Tripoli on the night of August 23rd. If the then rebels of the now ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) expected that internal insurrections would help them and they’d race into Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte and the other remaining holdout, Bani Walid, to a hero’s welcome, they were mistaken. Sirte and Bani Walid were not Tripoli. They resisted  — and resisted ferociously. Taken aback, fighters loyal to the NTC began drawn-out sieges of both towns, battering them with rockets, mortars and tanks as Gaddafi loyalists hit them with intense sniper and rocket fire. And all the while, the NTC men were backed by NATO warplanes. Now it’s not only the usual critics saying that NATO has overstepped the mark. It’s terrified Libyans fleeing Sirte with tales of dead relatives, weeks of little food and houses demolished by rockets. “What did America and NATO bring to us? Did they bring apricots?” one man shouted at a Reuters journalist in Sirte last week.  “No, they brought us the shelling and the strikes. They terrorised our kids.” It’s war, some officials say privately. It’s always messy towards the end. But civilian deaths have been kept to a minimum and the country’s infrastructure has been left largely intact, giving the economy a chance to get moving quickly. They could have surrendered, NTC commanders point out. NATO says that remnants of the Gaddafi regime pose a threat to civilians and it will support NTC operations for as long as that threat remains. They say Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte had kept people there as human shields and executed anti-Gaddafi residents – stories echoed by some fleeing the city. For NATO’s detractors, it’s hard to see how launching airstrikes on a city already under heavy shelling from the NTC and with no power and little food amounted to protecting the people who lived in it. Liam Fox was sure where the blame for the suffering lay. “There wouldn’t be any NATO strikes if it had not been for the fact that Gaddafi was threatening his own population and threatening a civilian, humanitarian catastrophe in Benghazi,” he told me, adding that the people of Sirte may need to be given “some information” on why the siege played out as it did. The risk now is that a people embittered by weeks of misery and the deaths of their friends may turn on the young government, making it difficult to stabilise the country and get it properly running again. Also, it seems true that many of them are sorry to see Gaddafi go – some because of tribal allegiances, some because their city benefitted from his position and some simply because they admired him. One loyalist captured at the hospital in Sirte kept a photo of the ousted leader in his pocket. For NATO, the worst-case scenario risks turning an operation it heralds a success, into an embarrassment. “It was more than I expected,” I heard Fox say to his NTC hosts over lunch in Misrata, referring to the wreckage wrought by Gaddafi’s merciless bombardment of that city after it was taken by the NTC. The pictures emerging from Sirte as it enters endgame suggest its devastation will be similar. What that will mean is the question.

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