TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Rebels seeking to quell the last redoubts of Muammar Gaddafi's loyalists have zeroed in on two cities, one his coastal birthplace and the other deep in Libya's oil-producing desert, that he has turned into a shrine to his cultish strongman rule.
Bristling with Gaddafi props like a huge marble-lined hall where he hosted diplomatic summits and billboards trumpeting his "state of the masses," Sirte and Sabha loomed as the last pockets of resistance to the Brother Leader's ouster.
After overrunning the capital Tripoli in lightning fashion earlier this week, rebels moved in on Sabha 600 km (400 miles) to the south and Sirte 450 km (280 miles) to the east in a two-pronged pincer attack, triggering heavy fighting on Thursday.
Even if both fall to the insurgents soon, vast expanses of Libya's interior desert will remain outside rebel control, areas
where tribes either pro-Gaddafi or historically hostile to central government have long held sway.
Still, rebel takeovers of Sirte and Sabha would deal a symbolically resonant coup de grace to the 42-year Gaddafi era.
That's because Sirte evoked his pretensions to revolutionary world statesmanship and Sabha his maverick "Brother Leader" mode of rule and the huge oil bounty that underpinned it.
Anchoring the Fezzan region in Libya's vast stony desert, Sabha features faded hoardings of Gaddafi in a tent, charting Libya's transformation into a Great Socialist Popular Arab Jamihiriyah that he proclaimed from the city in 1977.
Rising above a sprawling, gritty jumble of squat houses and half-finished construction projects is a fort built by former colonial power Italy that became a monument to Gaddafi's writ. The fort, turned into a key military base by Gaddafi, appeared to remain in the hands of loyalist troops his week.
The fort graces the reverse of Libya's 10-dinar banknote.
As a child under the monarchy he overthrew in a 1969 coup, Gaddafi was expelled from a school in Sabha. A one-room cabin called Dar Muammar where he lived at the time is now enclosed by a green fence in the middle of a small traffic circle.
Just west of the city of 250,000 is a fertile enclave called the Wadi al Hayat -- Valley of Life -- containing some of Libya's most notable oil and water reserves.
More than 15 percent of Libya's pre-conflict oil output was churned out here by Spain's Repsol energy concern.
Underground aquifers in this part of southern Libya feed the "Great Man-Made River," one of Gaddafi's grandest economic development projects that now provides two-thirds of the North African state's water supply.
Five hundred km to the northeast is Sirte, a once obscure fishing village close to where Gaddafi was born in a tent in 1942 and which, with extensive public works, he made over into a second capital in his own ostentatious likeness.
Sirte, with a population of 100,000 and a center of Gaddafi's tribe, is dominated by the huge, marbled Ouagadougou conference center, where Gaddafi hosted summits of foreign heads of state.
He kept a tent complex on the beach nearby where favored leaders were invited to while away the evening.
Sirte was where the founding document of the African Union, which has since become known as the Sirte Declaration and one of Gaddafi's proudest achievements, was signed in 1999.
A U.S. embassy cable published by the WikiLeaks website described a summit of African leaders in Sirte as a "Gaddafi-centric dog and pony show." During international summits, the city would be heavily guarded and soldiers lined desert roads leading there at intervals of a few hundred meters.
The city is strategically important because it sits next to oil reserves and has a civilian airport-cum-military air base with some 50 reinforced concrete hangars, of the kind usually used to protect fighter planes, according to satellite imagery.
Other far-flung southern swathes of the North African state may elude rebel control for some time to come merely because they have long defied central governance from distant Tripoli.
In the extreme southeast around the town of Al Kufra, there are no paved roads or mobile telephone network and a tribal rebellion in 2009 was suppressed only after Gaddafi sent in helicopter gunships.
Many tracts of the southeast remain heavily mined, a deadly vestige of Gaddafi's border war with Chad in the 1970s and 80s.
Lawlessness prevails along the several hundred km (miles) between Ghadames on the central western border with Tunisia and the garrison town Ghat on the Mauritanian border to the south.
There have been sporadic shootouts in this remote rugged, belt between Libyan government forces and groups of bandits or Islamist militants, some infiltrating from adjacent Algeria.
(Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Ralph Boulton)