- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2011

U.S.-led military forces knocked out much of Libya’s air defenses over the weekend with scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles and aerial bombs in the first phase of creating a U.N.-mandated no fly-zone, as differences emerged over targeting Libya’s leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

Joint Staff Director Vice Adm. William Gortney told reporters Sunday that missile strikes from two U.S. destroyers and five submarines — four U.S. and one British — fired more than 120 cruise missiles at 20-odd air-defense sites. The attacks were “very effective in significantly degrading” Libya’s Soviet-era air-defense network, he said.

In Libya, Col. Gadhafi vowed to resist the international military intervention and announced on state radio he would pass out small arms to Libyans to support an insurgency against Western forces. The Libyan military announced a second cease-fire, apparently aimed at discouraging further U.S. and allied attacks.

In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, residents fired AK-47s in the air in celebration of the foreign intervention and danced on bombed-out tanks destroyed in allied airstrikes. Sporadic anti-aircraft firing in Tripoli was seen last night, according to wire-service reports from the Libyan capital.

President Obama, traveling in Brazil, was briefed on the operation Sunday by key advisers. In announcing the strikes a day earlier he said the operation was launched reluctantly and with limited objectives. “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy,” Mr. Obama said, adding that the U.S. would not send ground troops.

At the Pentagon, Adm. Gortney said most fixed air-defense sites were destroyed, but that high-tech jets were targeting such mobile air-defense systems as SA-6 and SA-8 surface-to-air missiles. Shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles and other light weapons also pose a threat to coalition aircraft, he said.

Despite this, officials appeared confident that the initial phase of operations — destroying Libyan air defenses — was proving successful.

“Effectively, the no-fly zone has been put in place,” Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

Later, Adm. Mullen said on CNN that Col. Gadhafi’s forces are stretched thin between the capital Tripoli and the main rebel-held town of Benghazi. “Now we’ll look to cut off his logistics lines,” he said.

Adm. Gortney said U.S., French and British aircraft had already struck Col. Gadhafi’s ground forces near Benghazi. It was the dictator’s promise to show “no mercy, no pity” to the population there that triggered the U.N. Security Council resolution last week that authorized “all means” against Libyan forces engaged in targeting civilians.

“Benghazi is not completely safe from attack, but it is certainly under less threat than it was yesterday,” Adm. Gortney said, noting that there were no reports of civilian casualties.

The air-exclusion zone will extend over about one-third of the North African state, Adm. Gortney said.

Despite the administration’s efforts to present the strikes as a wide coalition action — the first jet sorties were launched by the French — it was clear the U.S. provided the majority of forces.

Adm. Gortney said the allied forces are under U.S. command for the time being, being led by a joint task force headed by Adm. Sam Locklear aboard the USS Mount Whitney in the Mediterranean.

Adm. Gortney said more Arab nations are expected to announce their role in the military action, called Operation Odyssey Dawn, and that an international coalition command would take control in the next several days.

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