Updated March 20 at 11:29 a.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — U.S. aircraft are carrying out strikes from above following a barrage of cruise missiles that signaled the start of a multinational operation aimed at weakening Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s ability to crack down against opposition forces.
The Navy announced Sunday that it had launched EA-18G Growlers from bases in the region, and the Marine Corps said its AV-8B Harriers have targeted Gadhafi’s ground forces and air defenses.
"Protecting the innocent and conducting combined operations are what we are designed to do," said Col. Mark J. Desens, commander of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "Our forces are doing both as part of the U.S. commitment to protect Libyan citizens."
Media reporters on the ground Sunday decribed convoys of Gadhafi loyalist forces — at least some of which had apparently been in retreat from the opposition stronghold Benghazi — destroyed by airstrikes along miles of highway near the eastern Libyan city.
CBS News reported that three B-2 stealth bombers flew nonstop from the United States to drop 40 bombs on a major Libyan airfield, and that Air Force fighter jets had taken off on missions searching for ground forces.
U.S. and British ships and submarines began Operation Odyssey Dawn on Saturday by firing more than 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles impacting more than 20 of Gadhafi’s air defense systems and facilities, according to Vice Admiral William Gortney, director of the Joint Staff. At least 25 ships from coalition nations are supporting the operations, which include enforcement of a no-fly zone over northern Libya.
"This is just the first phase of what will likely be a multiphased military operation," Gortney said, adding the U.S. would not go beyond the "well-defined goal" of protecting Libyan citizens.
President Barack Obama reiterated on Saturday that no U.S. ground troops would enter Libya.
"This is not an outcome the U.S. or any of our partners sought," Obama said. "But we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy."
While U.S. officials have emphasized the importance of Arab support for action against Gadhafi, the head of the Arab League said Sunday the U.S.-led airstrikes had gone beyond simply instituting a no-fly zone, and had killed innocent Libyans.
"What we want is civilians' protection, not shelling more civilians," said Amr Mousa, Arab League secretary-general.
But Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday morning on "Meet the Press" he had heard no reports of civilian deaths.
According to plans presented to reporters at the Pentagon on Saturday, the first missiles were directed at the western shores around Tripoli and Misratah at targets the Pentagon expects could contest the no-fly zone and endanger coalition pilots. Potential targets included surface-to-air missiles, as well as early warning radar and communications sites.
Gortney would not say whether Gadhafi himself would be targeted.
The coalition did not strike Benghazi, where rebels are fighting desperately to control the city, instead aiming for "critical nodes" concentrated in Tripoli. Additional targets were identified just south of Benghazi, near Burayqah and Adabiya.
The operation has two goals: prevent further attacks on opposition forces and degrade Gadhafi’s ability to contest the no-fly zone. U.S. forces bring unique capabilities, Gortney said, including cruise missiles, command-and-control elements, and electronic warfare system, though the latter was not used in the initial wave.
It started just hours after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with officials from 21 nations at a summit in Paris. Earlier Saturday, French war planes attacked Libyan positions around Benghazi, where Gadhafi had continued to pound rebel forces despite calling for a cease-fire.
"We have seen no real effort on the part of the Gadhafi forces to abide by a cease-fire," Clinton said at a news conference.
Obama on Friday approved the use of U.S. military force in what he said would be a limited mission to carry out a United Nations Security Council mandate.
For weeks, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he had provided Obama with "a range of options" but refused to join calls for a no-fly zone, instead offering sober assessments of what a no-fly zone would take to maintain. Last week, NATO defense ministers agreed they would only intervene with the support of Arab nations and a legal mandate from the United Nations. Shortly after, the Arab League called for the no-fly zone
"We should not stand aside while this dictator murders his own people," British Prime Minister David Cameron said Saturday afternoon, calling it a "just cause."
For now, the operation is under the command of U.S. Africa Commander Gen. Carter Ham, who was sworn to that post just last week, while U.S. Adm. Sam Locklear is commanding a joint task force from aboard the USS Mount Whitney.
It includes 11 U.S. vessels, including the amphibious ships USS Kearsage and USS Ponce, submarines USS Scranton, USS Florida, and USS Providence, as well as Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Stout and USS Barry. Additionally, three supply ships, 11 Italian ships, and one ship each from Britain, France, and Italy comprise the effort.
Eventually, the Pentagon plans to hand command control over to another country in the coalition, but no time was given. The official said the coalition includes Britain, France, Italy, Canada and other unnamed countries, including Arab ones, that would reveal their participation on their own.
Gates delayed his planned Saturday departure for Russia to monitor events from Washington, while Mullen was in the Pentagon.