U.S. takes on support role as allies mobilize for no-fly zone

The planned military action in Libya marks a rare international intervention in which U.S. forces will not take the lead operational role.

With French, British and United Arab Emirates jets poised to begin flights over Libya, and other European and Arab forces assembling to aid enforcement of a no-fly zone, the Americans were far from the pending action, in ships offshore and surveillance aircraft high above.

President Obama, in an East Room statement on Friday, described U.S. tasks as “shaping” and “enabling” operations, which administration officials said would include sea-launched strikes on Libyan air defenses to make the skies safe for others and command-and-control functions.

“I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing,” Obama said. “The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically the protection of civilians in Libya.”

Although military officials did not rule out the use of U.S. fighters and bombers in subsequent phases of the Libya operations, should they become necessary, Obama made clear to the lawmakers he gathered for a White House briefing that there were no initial plans to use U.S. aircraft.

In his meeting with congressional leaders, Obama emphasized that “he was not authorizing any soldiers or fighter planes at this juncture,” according to a staffer for Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who this week raised concerns about Obama’s authority to use force in Libya without a congressional declaration of war.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who had strongly urged intervention in Libya, said the international mission outlined by Obama “very much meets” his own demands for action. The U.N. resolution adopted Thursday, authorizing the use of “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, Kerry said, “leaves the coalition a lot of flexibility to . . . do what we need to do to shift the balance.”

U.S. and European officials discussed the Libyan operation on condition of anonymity as plans were being finalized late Friday.

Among the many decisions still to be made was whether the early stages of the Libyan mission would be conducted under the auspices of NATO or the individual countries that have agreed to participate.“It may happen in phases,” a NATO official said, with NATO taking over within several days after the “first phase.”

The official said that France was eager for the operation to remain a “coalition of the willing,” while Britain is seeking an early NATO buy-in.

Events on the ground, including the extent to which Moammar Gaddafi’s ground forces cease movement and operations, will determine whether jets enforcing the no-fly zone will also attack Libyan tank and offensive formations, officials said.

As the operation progresses, particularly after NATO command is assumed, other nations are expected to contribute forces. Officials said that Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were considering sending aircraft.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was due to make contact Friday with the Saudi government. French President Nicolas Sarkozy met in Paris Friday with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar.

Sarkozy has scheduled a summit in Paris at midday Saturday, to include top Arab, U.S. and European Union officials “as well as high officials of all nations that wish to offer their support to the implementation of the U.N. resolution.” Clinton plans to attend the meeting, which officials said would serve as a de facto final deadline for Gaddafi.

While initial missions will be flown out of the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, longer-term planning also includes Italian and French air bases, and the U.S. air base in Sicily. Flights could also be flown directly from Britain, with aerial refuelling.

The UAE has one of the world’s most sophisticated air forces, including top-line U.S. F-16s and upgraded French Mirages.

The U.S. Navy has at least five ships in the Mediterranean that could play a role in the operation, including two Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers, the USS Stout and the USS Barry. Also in the region are the USS Ponce, an amphibious docking ship, and the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship that is carrying 400 Marines and can serve as a platform for helicopter missions.

Leading them is the USS Mount Whitney, the flagship of the Navy’s Sixth Fleet, outfitted with highly sophisticated command and control systems.

Also in the Mediterranean is the USS Providence, a Los Angeles-class submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Navy has also recently deployed “a few” other submarines to the region, according to a U.S. military official who declined to provide details.

In a statement to Parliament Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain was deploying Tornado and Typhoon fighter jets, “as well as air-to-air-refuelling and surveillance aircraft.”

U.S. defense officials said that Libya’s air force has more than 100 MiG fighter aircraft, about 30 helicopters and 15 transport aircraft. But that inventory is considered to be in relatively poor condition. Last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper estimated that 75 to 80 percent of Libya’s aircraft are “non-operational.”

Libya also has more than 30 surface-to-air missile installations, including approximately 50 SA-6 missiles, with a range of roughly 100 miles, and an unknown number of longer-range SA-5 missiles, according to U.S. defense officials.

Lawmakers who met with Obama Friday were widely in favor of the supportive role he outlined. “We are providing strategic support where we have unique capabilities to the Arab and European nations that are taking the lead,” said California Rep. Howard Berman, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The president made the right decision in having the U.S. play that role as part of a broad base international coalition to address this urgent situation.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said “I like what I heard.”

Staff writers David Fahrenthold and Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.

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