- 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.

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.

“People have a sense of relief and a relative sense of security, knowing that Gadhafi’s troops are running for their lives,” Mohamed Benrasali, a member of the rebel provisional committee administering Misurata, told The Washington Times.

Pro-Gadhafi snipers, however, kept up their campaign of terror from positions on the rooftops of buildings in the center of the city.

Snipers killed three people and wounded 10 on Wednesday, Mr. Benrasali said.

A doctor at a medical center in Misurata, who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity, said most of the snipers’ victims had head and chest injuries.

“They are shooting to kill. They’re not playing games,” he said.

In Misurata, long lines formed outside bakeries and grocery stores, which opened for the first time in almost a week.

But residents remained anxious.

“It is not over yet,” Mr. Benrasali said, adding that the coalition should keep up its attack on the regime’s supply routes and put more political pressure on Col. Gadhafi.

Mr. Benrasali said there had been no civilian casualties in the airstrikes, which he described as very precise.

Pro-Gadhafi forces have used tanks, artillery and rocket launchers against unarmed civilians and a ragtag rebel army in recent days.

In Tripoli, residents said they heard explosions in the city’s Tajoura neighborhood. The regime said these were airstrikes.

NATO deadlocked

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, the allies continued the tortuous process of trying to reach agreement on a new command structure for the complex operation.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized any member states to take “all necessary measures” short of occupation to impose the no-fly zone and protect civilians.

By Tuesday, the outlines of a deal began to emerge, in which a NATO command structure would operate under the leadership of an ad hoc political committee of foreign ministers of the coalition nations. But the 28-member NATO alliance operates by consensus and throughout Wednesday at its headquarters in Brussels, that proved elusive.

“No decision on anything,” a senior NATO diplomat said.

Negotiating sessions this week ended with bitter disputes and walkouts. Norway delayed its participation in the operation, and Italy threatened to withdraw the use of their air bases, which are being used by U.S. planes.

Turkey, the only Muslim nation in NATO, opposes assuming command of the air war because of concern about civilian casualties.

Germany, which opposes the no-fly zone, pulled its naval forces that included AWACS surveillance operations out of NATO military operations in the Mediterranean to prevent them from being used in the Libyan operation.

Bill Gertz contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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