Misrata — The top US military officer said air strikes had hobbled Libyan forces, but admitted the conflict was moving into "stalemate" as Muammar Qadhafi's troops pressed on with their punishing siege of rebel Misrata.
Rebels welcomed US plans to deploy unmanned aircraft, typically operated remotely from the United States. But it emerged bad weather had forced the first two drones sent to Libya to turn back.
"It's certainly moving toward a stalemate," said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US military's joint chiefs of staff, addressing US troops during a visit to Baghdad.
"At the same time we've attrited somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of his main ground forces, his ground force capabilities. Those will continue to go away over time."
Doctors at the hospital in Misrata, the rebels' last major bastion in the West of the country, said nine insurgents were killed in fighting on Thursday.
Rebel fighters, outgunned by government forces, describe a bitter, block-by-block war of attrition amid shattered buildings and streets carpeted with debris. The enemy is sometimes only yards (meters) away.
"Qadhafi's fighters taunt us. If they are in a nearby building they yell at us at night to scare us. They call us rats," one rebel said.
Hundreds of people are believed to have died in Misrata during the siege. At the hospital, ambulances raced in carrying wounded fighters. Doctors said that four of the nine rebels killed died in a fierce battle around the Tripoli Street thoroughfare.
Rebel Salman al-Mabrouk said a group came under fire when they tried to enter a building occupied by pro-Qadhafi snipers.
"We suddenly discovered they had surrounded us on all sides and they opened fire. It seems many government soldiers were inside buildings around the one where we tried to get into."
Rebel fighters voiced frustration with an international military operation they see as too cautious.
"NATO has been inefficient in Misrata. NATO has completely failed to change things on the ground," rebel spokesman Abdelsalam said.
Food and medical supplies were running out and there were long queues for petrol. Electricity was cut so residents depended on generators. Thousands of stranded foreign migrant workers awaited rescue in the port area.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Washington news conference President Barack Obama had authorized the use of Predator drones and they were already in operation.
General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the first two Predators were sent to Libya on Thursday but had to turn back because of bad weather.
The United States planned to maintain two patrols of armed Predators above Libya at any given time, Cartwright said.
The drones have proven a potent weapon in Pakistan and other areas where US forces have no troops on the ground. They can stay aloft nearly perpetually without being noticed from the ground and hit targets with missiles, with no risk to crew.
"There's no doubt that will help protect civilians and we welcome that step from the American administration," Rebel spokesman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga said on Al-Jazeera television.
Libyan state television said nine people had been killed overnight by NATO bombardment of the city of Sirte, Qadhafi's home town, including employees of the state water utility.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Qadhafi's forces were carrying out "vicious attacks" on Misrata and might have used cluster bombs against civilians. The United States, like Libya, has not joined a convention banning such weapons.
France said it would send up to 10 military advisers to Libya and Britain plans to dispatch up to a dozen officers to help rebels improve organization and communications. Italy is considering sending a small military training team.
Tripoli denounced such moves and some commentators warned of "mission creep," after assurances by Western leaders that they would not put "boots on the ground" in Libya.
Russia said the sending of advisers exceeded the UN Security Council mandate to protect civilians.
"We are not happy about the latest events in Libya, which are pulling the international community into a conflict on the ground. This may have unpredictable consequences," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The French Defense Ministry said on Thursday it had increased the number of its air sorties in the past week to 41 from an average of 30 since the start of the operation.
Libya urged rebels on Thursday to sit down to peace talks but said it was arming and training civilians to confront any possible ground attack by NATO forces.
"Many cities have organized themselves into squads to fight any possible NATO invasion," government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said, adding that authorities were handing out rifles and guns.
In Tripoli, Ibrahim told reporters the government welcomed ships coming to Misrata to pick up foreign workers. However, it would not accept international humanitarian aid arriving "with military cover."
Fighting continues in the rebel-held east of the country. Qadhafi's forces fired shells toward the town of Ajdabiyah on Thursday, seeking to dislodge anti-government fighters from their main outpost before the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.