WASHINGTON — The U.S.-led coalition is slowing its bombing campaign over Libya and pushing the boundaries of a no-fly zone westward toward Tripoli, but it will not provide close air support for opposition rebels, its commander said.
There is no sign, however, that a handoff of operational control to U.S. allies is imminent, despite pledges from President Barack Obama and others to do so within days.
“I would not put a date certain on this,” Gen. Carter Ham said Monday as he briefed Pentagon reporters from Africa Command’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
The coalition has not yet decided what form the new command structure will take. French officials said on Monday the Arab League does not want NATO to assume command of the operation. On Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested it could be a joint British-French lead.
Still, U.S. officials believe the U.S.-led portion of Operation Odyssey Dawn will not be prolonged.
“We expect that to happen in a matter of days, not weeks,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said Monday.
Some congressional Republicans, including majority leader Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, have lightly criticized Obama for not defining the U.S. role more clearly.
While the way forward is debated, and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s forces are withdrawing from Benghazi, Ham said the coalition has no intent to act as an opposition air force aiding a rebel push for more territory.
“We do not provide close-air support for the opposition forces,” he said. “We protect civilians,” he said.
Ham added that the coalition also does not aim to target Libyan leaders and said Sunday’s attack on Gadhafi’s Tripoli compound targeted a known command control building. The coalition is not seeking or targeting Gadhafi and though the leader may survive and remain in power despite this limited military operation, he said, “I don’t think anyone would say that is ideal.”
The fear of Gadhafi-sponsored terrorist reprisals at American targets was, Ham said, “a very, very legitimate concern,” but there was no evidence of that yet.
The international force decimated Gadhafi’s air force in the opening days of the campaign, but some strikes continue. Ham said 12 Tomahawks hit Libyan command structures and SCUD missile sites on Monday. Earlier targets were struck again and naval vessels continue to patrol the coast.
The air mission now includes aircraft from France, Spain, Italy, Demark and Britain. Ham said the U.S. carried out about half of the 60 sorties flown Sunday, but a smaller share of the 70 to 80 flown Monday through the evening hours. More countries are expected to join in coming days, he said.
Ham expects coalition aircraft to encounter mobile air defenses as the no-fly zone is expanded toward Tripoli, but won’t target those Libyan ground forces the coalition perceives to have ceased fire and pulled away from Benghazi. The coalition’s aim is not to wipe out the Libyan military, he said.
“I don’t worry too much about mission creep,” Ham said. “The military mission here is pretty clear.”
It’s goals, he said: Establish the no-fly zone, protect civilians and get regime ground forces to withdraw from Benghazi.
“It’s clear to me, simply from watching the reports,” Ham said, “... that many of the opposition truly are civilians and they’re trying to protect their homes, their families, their businesses — and in doing that, some of them have taken up arms.”
However, he added, Libyan rebels who take to armored vehicles and heavy weapons and begin offensives against the Libyan military that are deemed to endanger civilians also could lose coalition protection.
“Those parts of the opposition, I would argue, are no longer covered under that ‘protect civilians’ clause,” he said, but added that distinction is unclear, calling it “a very problematic situation.”