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U.S. Likely To Keep Combat Role After Libya Shift

This article is more than 12 years old.

The United States welcomed a partial handover for the Libyan air campaign to NATO, but the allies apparently balked at assuming full control and the U.S. military was left in charge of the brunt of combat.

NATO agreed on Thursday to take over command of the newly established no-fly zone over Libya, protective flights meant to deter Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi from putting warplanes in the air. That leaves the U.S. with responsibility for attacks on Gadhafi's ground forces and other targets, which are the toughest and most controversial portion of the operation.

The U.S had hoped the alliance would reach a consensus Thursday for NATO to take full control of the military operation authorized by the United Nations, including the protection of Libyan civilians and supporting humanitarian aid efforts on the ground. It was not immediately clear when the allies could reach agreement on the matter.

"We are taking the next step: We have agreed along with our NATO allies to transition command and control for the no-fly zone over Libya to NATO," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

"All 28 allies have also now authorized military authorities to develop an operations plan for NATO to take on the broader civilian protection mission," Clinton said.

Lines of authority were unclear Thursday night, but it appeared the NATO decision sets up dual command centers and opens the door to confusion and finger-pointing. U.S. commanders would presumably be chiefly responsible for ensuring that the NATO protective flights do not conflict with planned combat operations under U.S. command.

The Pentagon indicated U.S. warplanes will keep flying strike missions over Libya.

Senior administration officials said the breakthrough came in a four-way telephone call with Clinton and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Turkey. The four worked out the way forward, which included the immediate transfer of command and control of the no-fly zone over Libya, and by early next week of the rest of the U.N.-mandated mission.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military planning, said the actual handover of the no-fly zone would occur in one or two days. They said NATO would have a final operational plan by over the weekend for how it would assume control over the rest of the protection mission, and that it would be executable by Tuesday's meeting in London of nations contributing to the military action.

The officials said the decision of which commanders control which areas was still being worked out.

NATO's announcement came after nearly a week of U.S.-led air assaults, as the Obama administration pressed for a quick handoff. A series of disagreements, including questions of overall political control and how aggressive the mission should be, had held up the allies' agreement.

Targets Deepen Within Libya

French fighter jets hit aircraft and a crossroads military base deep inside Libya as the U.S. reduced its combat role in the international operation that is working to thwart Moammar Gadhafi's forces by land, sea and air.

Explosions could be heard in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, before daybreak Friday, apparently from airstrikes.

Libya's air force has been effectively neutralized, and the government has taken part of its fight to the airwaves. On Thursday, state television aired pictures of bodies it said were victims of airstrikes, but a U.S. intelligence report bolstered rebel claims that Gadhafi's forces had simply taken bodies from a morgue.
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Libyan rebels rest in a pick-up truck near Ajdabiya, Libya on March 23, 2011 as government forces encircled the town.

Rebels are disorganized; allies are unwilling to expand strikes to go beyond protecting civilians.

International military support for the rebels is not open-ended: France set a timeframe on the international action at days or weeks not months.

The possibility of a looming deadline raised pressure on rebel forces. So does a U.N. arms embargo that keeps both Gadhafi and his outgunned opposition from getting more weapons. The rebels were so strapped Thursday that they handed out sneakers and not guns at one of their checkpoints
Ahmed Jarbou, 45, a businessman from Benghazi, and his 2-year-old daughter, Jude, examine remnants of destroyed mobile artillery from pro-Gadhafi forces.

The opposition keeps getting pushed back when trying to fight forward into the town of Ajdabiya.

"We are facing cannons, T-72 and T-92 tanks, so what do we need? We need anti-tank weapons, things like that," said Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman told reporters in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital. "We are preparing our army now. Before there was no army, from now there is an idea to prepare a new army with new armaments and new morals."

The Gadhafi regime appeared equally hard-pressed, asking international forces to spare its broadcast and communications infrastructure.

"Communications, whether by phones or other uses, are civilian and for the good of the Libyan nation to help us provide information, knowledge and coordinate everyday life. If these civilian targets are hit, it will make life harder for millions of civilians around Libya," Moussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman, told reporters in Tripoli.

Representatives for the regime and rebels were expected to attend an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Friday, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who described it as a part of an effort to reach a cease-fire and political solution.

International Military Option

The U.S. has been trying to give up the lead role in the operation against Gadhafi's forces, and NATO agreed late Thursday to assume one element of it control of the no-fly zone.

The U.S.-led coalition will still supervise attacks on targets on the ground, though fewer U.S. planes were used in airstrikes Thursday.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe spoke to the media during an EU foreign ministers meeting this week in Brussels.

"Nearly all, some 75 percent of the combat air patrol missions in support of the no-fly zone, are now being executed by our coalition partners," Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney, told reporters at the Pentagon. Other countries were handling less than 10 percent of such missions, he said.

The U.S. will continue to fly combat missions as needed, but its role will mainly be in support missions such as refueling allied planes and providing aerial surveillance of Libya, Gortney said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Thursday that the international military operation against Gadhafi's forces might last days or weeks — but not months — and would not involve ground troops.

"It's not Afghanistan and it's not Iraq," Juppe said, speaking to reporters ahead of EU and NATO meetings. "There will be no troops on the ground in Libya. We will neutralize Gadhafi from the air, and the Libyan people will decide their destiny."

The opposition keeps getting pushed back when trying to fight forward into the town of Ajdabiya.

Russia's former ambassador to Libya said Gadhafi could hold off coalition forces for months, and still enjoys broad public support and will not step down.

Vladimir Chamov, who was relieved of his duties last weekend by President Dmitry Medvedev, said on arrival in Moscow late Wednesday that the hostilities could turn Libya into a hotbed of instability resembling Iraq or Somalia.

Five days of Western airstrikes appear to have staved off what looked like imminent defeat for the rebels a week ago. But the decimation of Gadhafi's air force and the targeting of his ground forces and military infrastructure have failed to break a stalemate between rebels and regime forces on the ground in cities such as Misurata and Ajdabiya.

This program aired on March 25, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


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