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.
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.”