Villa Mussolini: NATO Wages War on Libya from Italian Ballroom

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NATO is planning its bombing raids on Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from a ballroom once used by Mussolini's fascists. Today, soldiers stride across the black marble floors, and the NATO war room is filled with representatives from several NATO countries, including Germany.

The white Art Deco building is in a state of disrepair, with cables dangling from the wall and water dripping from the air conditioners. The building, part of the NATO complex in Naples, is known simply by the letter "T." There is a riding school for the daughters of wealthy families on one side, and on the other side lies the fishing village of Pozzuoli, the hometown of screen beauty Sophia Loren, with its breathtaking view of the Gulf of Naples, the island of Capri, Mount Vesuvius and the tranquil waters of the Mediterranean.

A faded canopy and the crystal chandeliers in the grand ballroom are the only evidence of the building's colorful past. No one can really say whether Benito Mussolini truly danced in the ballroom, but it is clear that history is still being made there.

The villa housed Mussolini's fascist youth organization and the War Ministry in the late 1930s, and German occupiers lived there during World War II until 1943. It served as a home for displaced people after the war, and NATO arrived in the early 1950s. Today, in what is one of the best kept secrets of the NATO mission against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, soldiers in fatigues stride across the black marble floors, sit behind drawn blinds and spend days and nights staring at grainy video images from Africa.

A Secret, Silent Command Center

The ballroom in Naples is the secret command center in NATO's war against Gadhafi. Some 350 men and a handful of women sit there in front of computer screens, serving as the military alliance's eyes and ears in a war that has been raging for the last three months. Total silence reigns in the war room, as the ballroom is now called, and all mobile phones are set to vibrate.

To make its daily decisions on which targets to attack, NATO has set up a task force consisting of Air Force generals, diplomats, attorneys, media analysts, IT specialists and intelligence agents, the best of the best from Canada, Italy, France, Great Britain, the United States and, despite Berlin's abstention from the UN Security Council vote giving NATO the green light to conduct air raids, from Germany, too.

So-called targeters, who define the bombing targets in Gadhafi's realm, sit behind room dividers made out of glass onto which maps of Libya are taped. They base their decisions on photos taken by reconnaissance aircraft, Twitter messages, intercepted radio communications from the Libyan army and information from Western journalists in contact with the rebels. Although NATO officials do not comment on the matter, vital information also comes from the allied nations' intelligence agents stationed on the ground in Libya.

All of this data is then pieced together in the Naples war room. Since the beginning of Operation Unified Protector in late March, it has been up to the team in Naples to determine whether, when and with what weapons Gadhafi's military command centers or his private residence are to be bombed, and how best to avoid civilian casualties.

The core of the war room is a soundproof room with a conference table, where the NATO officers hold their daily situation meetings. Video conferencing connects those meeting in Naples with officials at NATO headquarters in Brussels and to a US general at the Poggio Renatico air base near Ferrara in northern Italy, where it is decided from which bases the fighter jets are to be loaded with weapons, given their target lists and dispatched over the Mediterranean.

Gadhafi As the Unspoken Target

Charles Bouchard, a Canadian three-star general, is rushing through the war room, a place very few journalists have been allowed to enter until now. Bouchard, the commander of the Naples operation, is visibly proud of the more than 10,000 missions flown to date. He approves each individual target, but sometimes he also deletes a target from the list at the last minute if, for example, boys are suddenly seen playing football nearby.

Naturally, Bouchard doesn't talk about the challenges or failures of his work, such as the munitions bottlenecks, the power struggles among the nations involved and the hopes, so far in vain, of killing the Libyan dictator. Although it seems obvious to any observer, no one can admit that the Libyan revolutionary leader is the actual target of the air strikes.

During lunch, however, lower-ranking soldiers speak somewhat more openly about the mission at the "Gas Station," a former service station that has been converted into an espresso bar. They explain that the US military is keeping a low profile, so that no one can accuse Washington of waging yet another war against a Muslim country. They hint at how tense the mood was in the war room on June 7, which is believed to be Gadhafi's 69th birthday, when NATO began to intensify the more dangerous daytime attacks. They quietly admit that a majority of the military targets have already been destroyed, that Gadhafi's army is on its last legs, that an end is in sight and that the war room will soon revert to what it was before the crisis: an ordinary warehouse for materials.

At the foundation for the Bank of Naples, the owner of the NATO premises, there are some who savor the exquisite irony of history. Benito Mussolini was sent to prison for five months in 1911 after protesting his country's path to war in Libya. Now, 100 years later, in his former quarters, the last days of another dictator are being planned.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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