NATO reaches deal to take over Libya operation; allied planes hit ground forces

NATO has reached final political agreement to take over all aspects of the international operation in Libya, including the air attacks currently being conducted against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s ground forces, according to U.S. officials

Officials said the mission would be commanded by a Canadian officer, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, at the NATO’s Joint Forces Command headquarters in Naples, Italy. They compared his position to that of U.S. Gen. David H. Petraeus in Afghanistan, who heads a similar international operation combining NATO members and two dozen other contributing nations.

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NATO members have agreed to take over enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya, but they're still haggling over details of the attacks on ground forces that aim to keep Moammar Gaddafi forces from crushing pro-democracy rebels. (March 25)

NATO members have agreed to take over enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya, but they're still haggling over details of the attacks on ground forces that aim to keep Moammar Gaddafi forces from crushing pro-democracy rebels. (March 25)

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The Obama administration has been eager to transfer military command in order to portray the seven-day-old operation as an international mission, undertaken for humanitarian reasons, rather than a U.S.-led offensive in another Muslim country.

Obama is also facing mounting pressure from Congress about the extent of U.S. involvement in a mission he has said would be turned over to international control in “days, not weeks.” At least two congressional committees have scheduled hearings next week on Libya.

Obama spoke Friday with Democratic and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill as part of ongoing consultations on Libya, and he intends to update the American public on the issue “in the very near future,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

NATO agreed early this week to assume command of an arms embargo and no-fly zone authorized by the United Nations Security Council. But alliance members disagreed on whether NATO should also control the air-to-ground missions being conducted by the United States, France and Britain — under U.S. command — to enforce separate provisions in the U.N. resolution authorizing the protection of Libyan civilians and “civilian areas.”

As a result of the political accord reached Thursday, there will be “no more dual-hatting, no more command change,” said one U.S. official. “It’s one mission, one boss, one theater.”

The basis for the agreement was reached during a telephone call Thursday night among Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her counterparts from Turkey, France and Britain. During nearly a week of NATO debate, France argued that the ground strikes should remain a joint U.S.-French-British mission to avoid offending Arab nations willing to participate in the non-combat parts of the mission under NATO but reluctant to sign onto the bombing campaign.

Turkey, a NATO member, said that only NATO leadership of the operations would allow sufficient transparency and coordination.

Two Arab nations, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have sent aircraft to participate in no-fly zone enforcement.

The U.S. official said NATO must still draw up official mission plans and rules of engagement for the airstrike operations, expected to be completed by early next week if not sooner. But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity until the command change has been made, said the shift would be relatively easy since the same forces — U.S., French and British — would be participating in the operation.

So far, the strikes on Gaddafi’s ground forces have not stopped them from launching attacks into rebel-held Libyan cities, a senior military official told reporters at the Pentagon.

Allied warplanes struck loyalist ground forces around the strategic Libyan city of Ajdabiya overnight, but the loyalists so far have resisted demands to stop fighting and instead are still trying to reinforce their positions, said Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He said coalition aircraft hit “targets of opportunity,” rather than planned objectives, as the the planes “responded to threats as they were occurring.”

Gortney said Gaddafi regime mechanized forces, notably tanks, came under air attack as they were preparing to fire on Ajdabiya, a city in eastern Libya that straddles highways leading north to the rebel capital of Benghazi and east to Tobruk. Of more than 150 air missions in the last 24 hours, 96 were “strike-related” and slightly more than half of those were flown by U.S. pilots, he said.

“We assess that our strikes on regime forces around [Ajdabiya] have had an effect, but the regime is still able and still determined to reinforce their positions there,” he said.

In addition, allied ships fired 16 Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in the capital, Tripoli, and in Sabha 480 miles to the south, Gortney said.

He described the longtime Libyan leader’s forces as increasingly isolated and weakened.

“Gaddafi has virtually no air-defense left to him and a diminishing ability to command and sustain his forces on the ground,” he said. “His air force cannot fly. His warships are staying in port. His ammunition stores are being destroyed, communications towers are being toppled, and command bunkers are being rendered useless.”

Yet, the loyalist forces so far have refused to heed coalition messages, delivered to them by various means, demanding that they remain in place, stop their attacks and disregard orders from the regime, Gortney said. “We’re looking for” compliance, he said, “but we haven’t seen it yet.”

In response to questions, he said the coalition is not likely to run out of targets soon, even given rules of engagement that bar airstrikes that could harm civilians. In fact, he said, the list of targets is likely to grow.

“As we bring in more surveillance aircraft and we get a better picture of the ground order of battle, our ability to go after Gaddafi’s forces in the field will improve,” Gortney said.

The allied warplanes are not attacking Libyan ground forces in built-up urban areas, but instead are striking their supply lines and communication nodes in the hope that eventually the regime forces will lose the will and ability to sustain their assaults.

Germany, which abstained from voting on the U.N. authorization and has opposed NATO involvement in Libya, agreed as part of the political consultations Thursday to send more crews to man AWACS surveillance aircraft over Afghanistan in order to free up non-German crews to operation the Libyan flights.

U.S. officials have said that no consideration is being given to the use of allied ground forces to push out regime loyalists. But if the current stalemate on the ground continues, the United States could bring in slower-moving AC-130 gunships, attack helicopters or armed drones that can mount more discrete strikes and are better suited to battles in urban terrain.

“Those are all weapons in our toolbox that are being considered,” Gortney said.

Western officials continued to deny allegations by the Gaddafi government of widespread civilian casualties from the bombing.

“The operation is still focusing on tanks, combat vehicles, air defense targets — really whatever equipment and personnel are threatening the no-fly zone or civilians on the ground in such locations as Ajdabiya and along some other areas on the coast,” Marine Capt. Clint Gebke told the Associated Press from the operation’s command center aboard the USS Mount Whitney.

Earlier, a top French military official predicted that the international military campaign would last weeks and said a political solution is needed to end the conflict between rebels and those loyal to Gaddafi.

“I doubt it will be days. I think it will be weeks. I hope it will not be months,” said Adm. Edouard Guillaud, chief of staff of the French armed forces, according to a transcript posted on the Web site of France Info radio. “There will not be a military stalemate in the strict sense of the term. . . . The military is but an instrument, and it’s more about finding political solutions.”

In Geneva, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it is hearing consistent reports of increased internal displacement within Libya, with estimates that up to 20,000 people have sought refuge for more than two weeks in the small town of Butwen, east of Ajdabiya.

The U.N. refugee agency said it was told by the Libyan Red Crescent that 5,000 people are displaced in the coastal town of Derna, about 180 miles east of Benghazi.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian city of Marsa Matrouh, 137 miles east of the Libyan border, is now hosting hundreds, if not thousands, of Libyans, the UNHCR said. It said the refugee flow from Libya has remained steady over the past few days, with about 2,000 people arriving in Tunisia daily, most of them from Sudan and Bangladesh.

At the Egyptian border, an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people, mostly Libyans and Egyptians, are crossing from Libya each day, and growing numbers of Chadians are also being noted.

The agency said the number of people awaiting evacuation from transit camps at the Tunisian border has grown to 8,500; it appealed to foreign governments to support repatriation programs.

As of Wednesday, nearly 352,000 people had fled the violence in Libya, the UNHCR said. Of that number, more than 178,000 made their way to Tunisia, and more than 147,000 went to Egypt. The rest fled to Niger, Algeria, Chad and Sudan, officials said.

Staff writers William Branigin and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

 
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