* Gaddafi troops hold ground despite air assault
* Rebels lack leadership, advance bogs down
* U.S., France, Britain agree on NATO role
* Libyan leader defiant
(Adds quotes from battlefield)
By Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy
TRIPOLI, March 23 (Reuters) - Western powers attacking Libya
will end up in the dustbin of history, Muammar Gaddafi said as
his troops held back poorly equipped rebel forces despite four
nights of coalition air strikes.
While Western air power has grounded Gaddafi's warplanes and
pushed back his forces from the brink of rebel stronghold
Benghazi, disorganised and poorly equipped insurgents have
failed to capitalise on the ground and are pinned down.
The rebels have been unable to dislodge Gaddafi's forces
from the key junction of Ajdabiyah in the east, while government
tanks are besieging the last big rebel hold-out of Misrata.
There is a big risk of stalemate on the ground, analysts say.
At least two explosions were heard in the Libyan capital
Tripoli before dawn on Wednesday, Reuters witnesses said. The
roar of a warplane was heard above the city followed by a
barrage of anti-aircraft gunfire.
"We will not surrender," Gaddafi earlier told supporters
forming a human shield to protect him at his Tripoli compound,
which came under attack in 1986 from the Reagan administration
and once again in the current round of air strikes.
"We will defeat them by any means ... We are ready for the
fight, whether it will be a short or a long one ... We will be
victorious in the end," he said in a live television broadcast,
his first public appearance since the air strikes began.
"This assault ... is by a bunch of fascists who will end up
in the dustbin of history," Gaddafi said in a speech followed by
fireworks in the Libyan capital as crowds cheered and supporters
fired guns into the air.
The Libyan government denies its army is conducting any
offensive operations and says troops are only defending
themselves when they come under attack.
But rebels and residents say Gaddafi's tanks have kept up
their shelling of Misrata in the west, killing 40 people on
Monday alone, and also attacked the small town of Zintan near
the border with Tunisia.
It was impossible to independently verify the reports.
REBELS BOGGED DOWN
The siege of Misrata, now weeks old, is becoming
increasingly desperate, with water cut off for days and food
running out, doctors operating on patients in hospital corridors
and many of the wounded left untreated or simply turned away.
"The situation in the local hospital is disastrous," said a
Misrata doctor in a statement. "The doctors and medical teams
are exhausted beyond human physical ability and some of them
cannot reach the hospital because of tanks and snipers."
The rebel effort in the desert scrub of east Libya was
bogged down outside Ajdabiyah, with no movement on the strategic
town since Gaddafi's remaining tanks holed up there after the
government's armoured advance along the open road to Benghazi
was blown to bits by French air strikes on Saturday night.
Hiding in the sand dunes from the tank fire coming from the
town, the rebels are without heavy weapons, leadership,
communication, or even a plan. On Tuesday, groups of fighters
lounged around, chatting and smoking cigarettes. This was the
spearhead of the counter-offensive.
When asked who was in command, one fighter, Mohamed Bhreka,
shrugged and said: "Nobody is. We are volunteers. We just come
here. There is no plan."
Their heavy machine guns were bolted to the back of pick-up
trucks and there was a good supply of assault rifles. But some
just had knives or iron bars. Field radios were not to be seen.
Fighters on the frontline of the uprising against Gaddafi's
41-year rule of this oil-producing north African nation said
they had lost the heavy weapons needed to take on his tanks.
It remains to be seen whether the rebel's bravado and faith
in God are enough to take towns and advance towards their target
of capturing Tripoli.
AGREEMENT ON NATO ROLE
Western warplanes have flown more than 300 sorties over
Libya and more than 162 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired
in the United Nations-mandated mission to protect Libyan
civilians against government troops.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the allies should be able
to announce soon that they have achieved the objective of
creating the no-fly zone.
But, he said, Gaddafi would present a potential threat to
his people "unless he is willing to step down."
"We will continue to support the efforts to protect the
Libyan people. But we will not be in the lead," Obama said.
Obama, facing questions at home about the Libyan mission,
duration and cost, wants the United States to give up
operational control of enforcing the no-fly zone within days.
Obama spoke with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and
British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday and they agreed
NATO should play an important role in enforcing the Libyan
no-fly zone, the White House said.
France had been against a NATO role for fear of alienating
Arab support, while Turkey had also opposed the alliance taking
command as it said air strikes had already overstepped what was
authorised by the United Nations. But both countries' objections
had been overcome, U.S. officials said.
The plan is for NATO's command structure to be used for the
operations under the political leadership of a "steering body"
made up of Western and Arab nations members of the alliance
policing Libya's skies, diplomats said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said foreign ministers
of countries taking part in military action in Libya were set to
meet in the coming days to create a clear political structure
"I've proposed with the agreement of our British colleagues
that we set up a political structure to guide operations,
involving foreign ministers from countries that are taking part
and from the Arab League," Juppe told the French parliament.
While Gaddafi scoffed at the West in his latest speech, U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Libyan leader and
his allies may be exploring exile options, although it was
unclear if he would seriously contemplate stepping aside.
"Some of it is theatre," Clinton told ABC News in an
interview, saying Washington was aware of people reaching out
"allegedly on Gaddafi's behalf" to try to assess their options.
"A lot of it is just the way he behaves. It's somewhat
unpredictable. But some of it, we think, is exploring. You know,
what are my options, where could I go, what could I do. And we
would encourage that," she said.
Clinton also said the U.S. government had received
unconfirmed reports that at least one of Gaddafi's sons may have
been killed in air strikes. She said the "evidence is not
sufficient" to confirm the reports, but added it was not U.S.
forces that would have killed him.
(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Angus MacSwan in Benghazi,
Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Hamid Ould Ahmed
and Christian Lowe in Algiers, Tom Perry in Cairo; David
Brunnstrom in Brussels, Phil Stewart in Moscow, Andrew Quinn in
Washington; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Giles
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