- Associated Press - Monday, March 21, 2011

WASHINGTON — Coalition jets patrolled the no-fly zone over Libya on Monday but launched no new strikes after scattering and isolating Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces with a weekend of punishing air attacks, Pentagon officials said.

American military authorities were moving to hand control of the operation to its allies in the coalition, though no precise timetable for such a handoff has been specified.

A cruise missile attack blasted Col. Gadhafi’s residential compound late Sunday, hitting a military command and control center, two U.S. officials said. It was the final strike launched over a weekend of ferocious air missions to destroy Libyan air defense and set up the no-fly zone approved by the United Nations to protect civilians, they said on condition of anonymity because they were not yet authorized to speak on the record about the latest developments.

A mix of coalition aircraft was enforcing the new zone, and officials said they saw no indications that Col. Gadhafi had tried to fly any of his planes. They were unaware of whether there had been strikes on any Gadhafi ground forces Monday.

Col. Gadhafi is not a target of the campaign, a senior military official said Sunday, but he could not guarantee the Libyan leader’s safety.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, said they want the Obama administration to answer questions about what the U.S. mission is in Libya, how it will be accomplished and how long the United States will be involved.

U.S. Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, staff director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference there is no evidence civilians in Libya have been harmed in the air assault, code named Odyssey Dawn. Adm. Gortney also said no allied planes have been lost and all pilots have returned safely from missions that used stealth B-2 bombers, jet fighters, more than 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles and other high-tech weapons.

“We judge these strikes to have been very effective in significantly degrading the regime’s air defense capability,” Adm. Gortney said. “We believe his forces are under significant stress and suffering from both isolation and a good deal of confusion.”

Adm. Gortney did not rule out the possibility of further attacks aimed at preventing Col. Gadhafi from attacking civilians in Libya and at enforcing the no-fly zone.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the United States expects to turn control of the mission over to a coalition — probably headed either by the French and British or by NATO — “in a matter of days.”

Late Sunday, however, NATO’s top decision-making body failed to agree on a plan to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, although it did approve a military plan to implement a U.N. arms embargo.

On Saturday night, three Air Force B-2s, launched from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, dropped precision munitions on an airfield near the city of Misurata, destroying hardened military aircraft shelters while avoiding commercial structures nearby. A military official said the B-2s flew 25 hours in a round trip from Whiteman and dropped 45 2,000-pound bombs.

And fifteen Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft, along with jets from France and Great Britain, hit a heavy infantry unit advancing on the rebel capital, Benghazi. “To protect the Libyan people, we took them under attack,” Adm. Gortney said.

Adm. Gortney said the coalition had control of the air space between Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya’s capital. “The no-fly zone is effectively in place,” he said. “Anything that does fly that we detect, we will engage.”

Inside Col. Gadhafi’s huge Tripoli compound, an administration building was hit and badly damaged late Sunday. An Associated Press photographer at the scene said half of the round, three-story building was knocked down, smoke was rising from it, and pieces of a cruise missile were scattered around the scene.

Col. Gadhafi and his residence are not on a list of targets to be hit by coalition aircraft, Adm. Gortney said. But Col. Gadhafi won’t be safe “if he happens to be at a place, if he is inspecting a surface-to-air missile site and we don’t have any idea that he’s there or not,” Adm. Gortney said.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the goals of the operation are to protect civilians from further violence by pro-Gadhafi forces, while enabling the flow of humanitarian relief supplies. But it was unclear how long the military effort would continue or on what scale.

That uncertainty led to criticism from senior Republicans in Congress.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said the Obama administration “has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is” and how it will be accomplished.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Obama needs to tell the American public “to what extent military force will be used and for how long.”

Army Gen. Carter Ham, the top officer at U.S. Africa Command, is in control of the operation. But the United States, which is heavily engaged in Afghanistan and still has troops in Iraq, is working to transfer command to another member of the coalition. Adm. Gortney did not provide details on when that would happen or which country would take the lead.

The U.S. role would shift mostly to providing support with aerial refueling tankers and electronic warfare aircraft that can jam or monitor enemy communications — assets that other countries don’t have in their inventories.

As of Sunday, Adm. Gortney said, members of the coalition included the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Italy, Belgium and Qatar. More are expected to join, but Adm. Gortney said those countries, and not the United States, would make that announcement.

Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.