- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The allies in the U.S.-led military operation in Libya debated a new command structure Tuesday, with differences over the ultimate aims and scope of the campaign impeding an agreement, as forces loyal to dictator Moammar Gadhafi shelled the coastal city of Misurata.

There were also growing questions about how much the Odyssey Dawn operation will cost and who will pay for it, as many participating nations are dealing with budget constraints in the aftermath of the global economic downturn.

President Obama, in the midst of a Latin America trip, spoke Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. A White House aide said all three agreed that NATO should have a key role in the command, but the details were still to be worked out.

“This is not finalized, so I don’t want to suggest that it is,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “This is still being worked in Brussels.”

Observers suggested that an agreement would be hard to reach, given the divergence of opinion. Mr. Obama has said Col. Gadhafi should step down, but his ouster is not the goal of the U.N. operation. Allies, including France, have said that overthrowing Col. Gadhafi is a key objective.

A supporter of Col. Moammar Gadhafi displays the Libyan leader's portrait Tuesday amid the wreckage of a Tripoli naval base warehouse hit by missiles Monday. (Associated Press)
A supporter of Col. Moammar Gadhafi displays the Libyan leader’s portrait Tuesday ... more >

Mr. Obama said Tuesday that the U.S. is seeking to hand off the leading role in the operation “over the next several days.”

“NATO is in complete disarray,” James Ludes, director of the think tank the American Security Project, told The Washington Times. “Everyone seems to have a different idea about what this is and where it is going.”

If the world leaders cannot reach an agreement, “we will be left holding the baby,” Mr. Ludes said.

Meanwhile, the crash of a U.S. fighter jet late Monday and reports that a U.S. rescue crew had fired on Libyan villagers underscored the complex and sometimes chaotic nature of the U.N.-mandated operation.

The two Air Force fliers ejected from their F-15E after it developed mechanical difficulties and were safe and in U.S. hands with only minor injuries, officials said.

But Britain’s Channel 4 News reported that six villagers had been hit by fire from the U.S. search-and-rescue craft that came to recover them.

“I cannot confirm that,” said Air Force Maj. Beverly Mock, a spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command, which is in charge of the operation. She said an investigation into the crash and its aftermath was under way.

Meanwhile, White House officials said Mr. Obama likely would leave San Salvador a couple of hours early Wednesday, but would hold a teleconference with national security advisers before departing.

As the diplomatic debate continued, forces loyal to Col. Gadhafi rode in tanks through the streets of Misurata shelling homes while residents were still indoors, killing and wounding scores, including children, eyewitnesses told The Times.

A resident of Misurata, about 130 miles east of Tripoli, said pro-Gadhafi forces had killed 90 people and wounded more than 1,000 over the past five days. Thirteen were killed Tuesday, he said.

Story Continues →