Amid Libyan airstrikes, new rifts open in international coalition

By Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 1:47 PM

Three days of heavy airstrikes have highlighted the murky nature of U.S. goals in Libya and opened up new rifts among key members of the international coalition involved in the effort.

Gen. Carter Ham, the U.S. commander leading the operation, said his mission, which was focused on protecting civilians from attacks by regime loyalists, was "pretty clear." But executing that mission on an increasingly chaotic battlefield that includes opposition forces, government troops and civilians has proved to be dauntingly complex for military commanders.

Commanders, Ham said, have found themselves in the position of having to distinguish between attacks by regime forces on innocent civilians, who clearly require protection, and pitched military battles between rebels and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

Under the U.N. mandate authorizing the mission, international fighter pilots are not permitted to intervene in battles between Libya's forces and the loosely organized rebels.

Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command, acknowledged that making distinctions between fighters and civilians from the vantage of a plane streaking across the sky at 15,000 feet presented risks.

"These are situations that brief much better at headquarters than they do in the cockpit of an aircraft," he said during a briefing for Pentagon reporters.

Coalition aircraft flew about 80 sorties over Libya on Monday, up from 60 sorties one day earlier. About half of those missions were flown by U.S. pilots, a number that should decline in the coming days as more countries join the coalition effort and the no-fly zone expands east toward the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

The confusion over the mission, meanwhile, has spread beyond Libya. On Monday, NATO members bickered over whether what began as a relatively straightforward effort aimed at preventing Gaddafi from launching airstrikes against his people had turned into a more punitive action directed at his military forces, according to a European diplomat.

The disputes appear to have delayed U.S. efforts to turn the command of the operation over to NATO in the next few days. As of Monday evening, it remained unclear when responsibility would shift and who would assume it.

France, which has sought to portray itself as being in the vanguard of the operation, has raised concerns that Arab states will not participate in the operation if it is led by NATO. Turkey, which abstained from voting on the U.N. resolution, has said it sees no role for NATO.

Senior U.S. officials have made clear that Gaddafi needs to vacate his position even as they have said that driving him from power and degrading his military forces were not the international coalition's goals.

"I think it's pretty clear to everybody that Libya would be better off without Gaddafi," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday. "But that is a matter for the Libyans themselves to decide. And I think given the opportunity and the absence of repression, they may well do that."

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