The interesting thing is how few casualties are being reported. We have reports of hundreds of people -- not thousands -- being killed in "massacres." There aren't any definitive reports, obviously, but the latest Wikipedia page lists "600+" casualties on the opposition side. The UN Sec-Gen and the Italian PM are estimating the casualties at around a thousand. At first this sounds like a lot, but not really. Imagine armed, disciplined soldiers opening up on crowds of tens of thousands with fully automatic weapons and explosives--casualties should pile up rapidly in such a "target rich environment." While the current level is not trivial by any means, it is lower than one would expect i days of high-intensity conflict. There are a few explanations I've been able to think of.
- Underreporting. There may be many more casualties which are not being reported. This is certainly plausible given the media lock down in Libya. However, given Italy's large investments and historical relationship with Libya, I put pretty high stock in their estimate. The wide variety of international groups all pegging the number on the order of a thousand or so also implies that while the exact number may be off by a bit -- even a substantial margin -- we're probably in the ballpark with a thousand or so.
- Wounded, not Dead. There could be large numbers of wounded. I'm guessing that most of the security forces are using the AK-47. The 7.62x39 round, like most intermediate assault rifle cartridges, produces a lot of wounding effects and fewer dead bodies. Part of this is by design -- in an armed conflict, killing a soldier takes one guy out of the fight. Wounding one takes two stretcher bearers and a medic out of the firefight, and then expends rear echelon medical resources.
- Battlefield Defeat. The opposition could be so well armed and led that they have simply tactically defeated the pro-regime forces and forced a tactical stalemate. While they have done well for themselves, at least at the outset, they were badly outgunned and lacked armored vehicles for mobility in the desert. So this has probably increased in importance as events have unfolded but wasn't a major factor at least initially.
- Not Shooting to Kill. I suspect this is the major reason. People are hesitant to kill. Even hardened soldiers in WW2 shooting at an enemy often deliberately aimed over the heads of their foes. While civil wars can be incredibly bloody, I'm guessing that at least at the outset, a lot of Libyan soldiers didn't want to kill their countrymen. Seeing the anti-regime protesters lynch soldiers that turned on the people probably played a role in this decision--fearing that you'll get shot back tends to suppress forces with marginal morale. I would suspect that while a lot of rounds were being expended, most of the pro-regime forces were not engaging their adversaries effectively.
Those are all steps that would help mitigate morale issues that prevent regular forces from being effective in racking up the body count. Whether or not regular forces will shoot to kill is an important question in any uprising. It certainly was the key question in Egypt a few weeks ago. In a sense, regular military forces provide a show of force. The regime hopes that the threat of force is sufficient to cause protesters to stand down. Sometimes, forces will shoot, and this is when civil wars get bloody. But sometimes they don't, and then the army either brokers an agreement (as has occurred in Egypt) or they melt away (as seems to be happening in Libya).
Hopefully, the body count stays relatively low. Yes, a thousand deaths is serious. However, it could be tens or hundreds of thousands. Regular military forces could continue to melt away, and Qaddafi may shoot himself in a bunker somewhere or hop on a jet to Venezuela or something. The most dangerous outcome, though is that Qaddafi manages to leverage some of those tools to rack up the body count (artillery, air strikes, foreign mercenaries, undisciplined extremist loyalists with a lot to lose if the regime crashes), which then causes the uprising to ratchet up the violence level. Then the world will see a full-scale shooting civil war.