WASHINGTON — The United States turned up pressure on quarreling NATO allies to take command of the air war in Libya on Wednesday, saying U.S. leadership could end as early as this weekend, even with the conflict’s outcome in doubt. The top U.S. diplomat said order could be restored quickly if Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi would quit.
The U.S. threat rang somewhat hollow, since U.S. officials said there is no absolute deadline for the United States to hand over front-line control of the military operation to other countries, or for an end to all U.S. participation. The Obama administration is eager to hand off the lead role in a conflict that some of President Barack Obama’s closest advisers resisted and that is raising complaints in Congress.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates, an early skeptic of U.S. military intervention in Libya, said Obama made clear from the start of the international air campaign last Saturday that the U.S. military would run it only for about one week. The assault began with a barrage of U.S. cruise missiles, fired by ships and submarines in the Mediterranean, and American Stealth bomber flights, the first war initiated by a president who inherited two others.
In an exchange with reporters travelling with him in Cairo on Wednesday, Gates was asked whether that meant the U.S. had set a hard deadline of this Saturday for turning over command of the air operations.
“I don’t want to be pinned down that closely,” he replied. “But what we’ve been saying is that we would expect this transition to the coalition, to a different command and control arrangement, to take place within a few days, and I would still stand by that.”
The U.S. and its partners are struggling to overcome a key dilemma of their mission: how to halt Gadhafi’s ground forces, which are now attacking urban areas, without endangering the very civilians the allies are supposed to be protecting.
As Obama returned to Washington from a three-nation tour of Latin America, Democrats lined up in support of his Libya approach. Congressional liberals and conservatives had criticized the president — some accusing him of acting too slowly, others saying he moved too quickly. Some said he should have asked for Congress’ approval before committing U.S. troops to combat.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said that when Gadhafi started a violent crackdown on his people, Obama moved with “unprecedented speed,” and when Gadhafi remained defiant, Obama worked with allies and the Arab nations. He called it a “prudent course of action for the president and for our nation.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, another Democrat, said the “president will gain bipartisan support. He proceeded in a way that is cautious and thoughtful. He put the ducks in a row. The United States is taking the lead for a short period of time and will hand this off for the ongoing effort.”
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters travelling with the president that it would be “a matter of days” for the transition away from U.S. leadership.
An American Army general now oversees the campaign from Europe, and an American Navy admiral is the day-to-day commander from a floating command post off the Libyan coast.
“There is an agreement that NATO is going to play a very important role on command and control,” Rhodes said, adding that details on the structure and shaping the transition were still under discussion.
French and British officials said U.S., European and Arab and African officials have been invited to London next week for political talks about Libya and how the NATO alliance will assume responsibility for the no-fly zone.
Administration officials conceded there is no clear end to the fighting, although the Pentagon claimed that Gadhafi’s air force is essentially defeated and coalition planes are targeting more of his ground forces. U.S. officials said other countries are flying a larger share of the combat strikes alongside U.S. warplanes.
The Pentagon said that over the past day, the coalition flew 175 air missions, including noncombat flights. Of that total, 113 flights, or about 65 per cent, were flown by U.S. planes, and 62 by other nations’ aircraft. Three days earlier, the U.S. share was 87 per cent, the Pentagon said.
Obama was asked in an interview with the Spanish-language network Univision if a land invasion would be out of the question in the event air strikes fail to dislodge Gadhafi. Obama called it “absolutely” out of the question.
Asked what the exit strategy is, Obama did not lay out a vision for ending the international action, but rather said: “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.”
“We’ll still be in a support role; we’ll still be providing jamming, and intelligence and other assets that are unique to us, but this is an international effort that’s designed to accomplish the goals that were set out in the Security Council resolution,” Obama said.
House Speaker John Boehner demanded that Obama outline the U.S. goals in Libya. In a letter to the White House, the Ohio Republican said he wants a clear and robust assessment of the mission and how it will be achieved.
Boehner’s letter does not call for a vote in the House on the commitment of U.S. military resources, as some individual lawmakers have demanded.
Gates said the allied mission in Libya is clear but the outcome is not.
“I think there are any number of possible outcomes here, and no one is in a position to predict them,” Gates said. One possibility, he said, is that Gadhafi, who has ruled the North African nation for 42 years, could see more major defections from within his ruling circle or more divisions within his family.
Clinton sounded a similar note.
“Gadhafi has a decision to make,” she told reporters at the State Department. “And the people around him each have decisions to make. The quickest way for him to end this is to actually serve the Libyan people by leaving.”
Gadhafi has remained defiant, however, vowing to resist to the end. Clinton had said on Tuesday that the U.S. had received reports, of possibly dubious veracity, that some in Gadhafi’s inner circle are looking for a way out.
In a telephone interview with reporters at the Pentagon from aboard his command ship, the USS Mount Whitney, in the Mediterranean, Navy Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber asserted that Gadhafi’s air force has essentially been defeated. He said no Libyan aircraft had attempted to fly over the previous 24 hours.
“Those aircraft have either been destroyed or rendered inoperable,” Hueber said.
Hueber repeated the U.N. Security Council’s demand, spelled out in a resolution approved last week, that Gadhafi must halt attacks on civilians and permit the flow of international humanitarian assistance.
“Clearly, Gadhafi’s forces have not met those requirements and are in clear violation of the U.N. Security Resolution 1973,” Hueber said, referring to the U.N. mandate approved last week. “There is widespread reporting indicating Libyan ground forces are engaged in fighting in a number of cities, including Ajdabiya and Misrata, and they are threatening a number of others, putting innocent civilians in grave danger.”
In Ajdabiya, a city south of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, regime forces intensified combat in and around the city, Hueber said, and in the western city of Misurata, regime forces “continue to clear opposition, increase combat operations and target civilian populations in the city. As a result, we are pressurizing Gadhafi’s forces that are attacking those civilian populations.”