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.
Currently, most military forces used in the initial strikes came from U.S. bases and ships in the region, along with support from British and French warplanes and other unspecified support from Canadian, Italian, Belgian and Qatari forces. In addition to the French and British forces already deployed, Adm. Gortney said aircraft would be arriving shortly from Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Qatar, the only Arab nation to announce its participation so far.
However, a NATO diplomat told Reuters news service in Brussels that the alliance’s ambassadors could not agree Sunday on a plan for the alliance to enforce the no-fly zone. The diplomat said Turkey, a Muslim nation that has criticized the military attacks, was blocking agreement.
Over the weekend, signs emerged that members of the coalition behind the U.N. resolution have different views about the ultimate objective of the operation.
Contrary to Mr. Obama’s statement earlier this month that Col. Gadhafi “must go,” Adm. Mullen and Adm. Gortney said Sunday that removing the Libyan leader is not an objective.
Adm. Gortney said that Col. Gadhafi was not on the list of targets in current operations but that he could be killed if he visited an air-defense site.
“The goals of this campaign right now again are limited, and it isn’t about seeing [Col. Gadhafi] go,” Adm. Mullen said. “It’s about supporting the United Nations resolution, which talked to limiting or eliminating his ability to kill his own people as well as support the humanitarian efforts.”
Adm. Mullen said the coalition mission could be accomplished with Col. Gadhafi still in power. “That’s certainly potentially one outcome,” he said.
While National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said Sunday that “it was a very good first day” for the mission, he said the action was limited to enforcing the no-fly zone, to protecting civilians and opening up avenues for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
However, France’s ambassador to the United Nations made it clear that his country has a different view of the goal of the U.N.-mandated operation.
“We consider that it means that Gadhafi has to go,” Gerard Araud told ABC News.
The apparent differences led some U.S. lawmakers to call for Mr. Obama to make U.S. objectives more clear.
“Are our goals aimed at protecting civilians in Libya or the removal of Moammar Gadhafi from power?” asked Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “In either case, to what extent and for how long will military resources be utilized?”
However, retired Brig. Gen. Mark T. Kimmitt, a former U.S. Central Command military strategist and Bush administration official told The Washington Times that the two views were not contradictory.
U.N. Resolution 1973 not only ordered a no-fly zone but gave broad authority to member states to take “all necessary measures … to protect civilians.”
“Adm. Mullen does not seem to be interpreting it as a blank check to conduct a full-scale military campaign to destroy the Libyan military, assist opposition forces or depose Gadhafi,” said Gen. Kimmitt of the resolution.
“By contrast the French government is expressing its view on the overall strategic effort. This is broader than the military operation,” he said, “Clearly, the French government would see the departure of Gadhafi — either voluntarily or through the efforts of the opposition — as accomplishing the strategic endstate they have outlined for Libya.”
Retired Army Gen. John Keane, a former vice chief of staff, told The Times that despite administration public statements, the real end game is the removal of Col. Gadhafi, who has backed terrorist attacks against Americans in the past and is a long-standing thorn in the side of the United States in the region.
“Common sense tells you, we are not going through this entire effort just to set up an opposition group in Benghazi. Fundamentally the strategic goal of our military operation, while unstated, is the removal of Gadhafi,” Gen. Keane said.
• Eli Lake and Kara Rowland contributed to this report.