President Obama hailed the “important progress” of the week-old military intervention in Libya on Saturday, saying that airstrikes by coalition forces had turned back loyalist tanks, saved lives and prevented a humanitarian disaster.
“We’re succeeding in our mission,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address one week after the first foreign bombs and missiles hit the air defenses of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
With Gaddafi’s troops on the defensive and a no-fly zone firmly in place, the United States is prepared to transfer responsibility for military operations to NATO under the agreement approved by alliance members late Thursday, Obama said.
“This is how the international community should work: more nations, not just the United States, bearing the responsibility and cost of upholding peace and security,” he said.
The president’s remarks came amid reports of new successes by the Libya opposition, as rebel fighters seized the strategic town of Ajdabiya, driving out loyalist forces that had been pounded in recent days by coalition airstrikes. A Libyan government minister confirmed the retreat but also claimed that foreign bombs and missiles had killed civilians.
Obama was expected to deliver a televised speech Monday to defend his administration’s Libya policy, but in his Saturday radio address, he said the military campaign is being waged successfully and in keeping with the core principles of protecting innocent civilians and maintaining strict limits on the United States’ role.
“Today, I can report that, thanks to our brave men and women in uniform, we’ve made important progress,” the president said.
“Because we acted quickly,” he added, “a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians — innocent men, women and children — have been saved.”
Obama did not directly call for Gaddafi’s ouster, as the administration has done repeatedly in the past. But he said the Libyan dictator must stop attacks against civilians and pull back his forces. He added that Gaddafi had “lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to rule.”
The administration has in recent days been discussing with its allies the possibility of supplying weapons to the Libyan opposition as coalition airstrikes failed to dislodge government forces from around key contested towns, according to U.S. and European officials.
France actively supports training and arming the rebels, and the Obama administration believes the U.N. resolution that authorized international intervention in Libya has the “flexibility” to allow such assistance, “if we thought that were the right way to go,” Obama spokesman Jay Carney said Friday. It is a “possibility,” he said.
Gene Cretz, the recently withdrawn U.S. ambassador to Libya, said that administration officials were having “the full gamut” of discussions on “potential assistance we might offer, both on the non-lethal and the lethal side,” but that no decisions had been made.
The coalition has stepped up its outreach to the opposition, inviting one of its senior leaders to a high-level international conference in London on Tuesday, called to determine future political strategy in Libya.
Increased focus on aiding the rebels came as NATO reached final agreement on taking over command and control of all aspects of the Libya operation, including U.S.-led airstrikes against forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, at NATO’s Joint Forces Command headquarters in Naples, Italy, is expected to take command of the operation early next week.
The NATO decision, made late Thursday, followed days of debate over the scope of alliance participation and came in time for President Obama to brief a bipartisan group of nearly two dozen congressional leaders in a call Friday afternoon.
Obama has scheduled a speech at the National Defense University on Monday night “to update the American people” on actions taken “with allies and partners to protect the Libyan people . . . the transition to NATO command and control, and our policy going forward,” the White House announced.
Unlike a week ago, when the White House discouraged questions during a briefing for lawmakers as the Libya mission began, Obama entertained queries from lawmakers during an hour-long call Friday. He was asked repeatedly about the goal of the operation and how long it would take.
His emphasis on the mission’s humanitarian objectives, and plans to decrease U.S. involvement as other nations increase their roles, appeared to satisfy some, but not all.