- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The U.S.-led military coalition continued to bicker Wednesday over a new command structure for airstrikes in Libya, as allied warplanes began pounding Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in the rebel-held city of Misurata, giving residents respite from a weeks-long siege.

The third day of squabbling over who will take over the complex U.N.-authorized operation to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and protect the country’s civilians left the United States with the leading role in the mission — a job President Obama has repeatedly said he wants to hand off to coalition partners.

“The exit strategy will be executed this week, in the sense that we will be pulling back from our much more active efforts to shape the environment,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with the Spanish-language network Univision.

A defense official familiar with an internal briefing said that as of Wednesday U.S. forces were no longer conducting air-combat patrols and that coalition jets were enforcing the no-fly zone.

U.S. jets are conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, aerial refueling and selective air-to-ground missions, the official said.

Libyan rebels run to take cover as mortars from Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces are fired on the front line near Zwitina on the outskirts of Ajdabiya in eastern Libya on Wednesday. Coalition attack planes have started to strike Col. Gadhafi's forces in and around the rebel-held towns of Ajdabiya and Misurata. (Associated Press)
Libyan rebels run to take cover as mortars from Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s ... more >

The official said that support from Arab air forces was disappointing, after the 22-nation Arab League called for the no-fly zone last week. Qatar is still planning to send some jet fighters, but they had not arrived as of early Wednesday.

The United Arab Emirates had planned to send two squadrons of jets with a total of 24 aircraft but backed out because of the government’s anger that the Obama administration failed to strongly support the Bahraini government in its fight against what it calls an Iranian-backed rebellion.

Gadhafi’s forces in disarray

A U.S. admiral involved in the operation said coalition forces had struck Col. Gadhafi’s forces in and around Ajdabiya and Misurata. Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, the chief of staff for the U.S. command, who briefed Pentagon reporters by phone, said U.S. planes flew 113 missions on Tuesday, while allied fighter jets flew 63.

“That number has increased just from three days ago, where we were flying a 15 percent coalition-sortie rate,” he said.

Adm. Hueber also confirmed that coalition attack planes had begun to strike Col. Gadhafi’s forces in and around the rebel-held towns of Ajdabiya and Misurata.

In Misurata, on the Mediterranean coast 130 miles east of Tripoli, residents told The Washington Times that pro-Gadhafi forces were in disarray after being targeted overnight by the coalition airstrikes.

However, pro-Gadhafi forces appeared to regroup by nightfall and shelled a hospital in the city.

Earlier an airstrike at about 11 a.m. local time struck the city’s old hospital that was being used as a base by pro-Gadhafi forces. Residents said the raid destroyed the regime’s tanks and heavy artillery stationed outside the building.

The hospital is near Misurata’s outskirts on the main street leading into the city. Residents have abandoned that stretch of road since the regime’s forces arrived.

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