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Early success in Libya campaign but what's next is unclear

By CHRIS CARROLL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 20, 2011

Updated March 20 at 5:25 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON – Though Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has effectively surrendered the country’s skies in the face of U.S.-led airstrikes, he remains in control of the ground across much of Libya.

The grizzled dictator has not been targeted by the 124 Tomahawk missile strikes or by numerous attacks by fighters and bombers since Operation Odyssey Dawn began Saturday, Vice Admiral William Gortney, director of the U.S. Joint Staff, said Sunday.

“At this point, I can guarantee he’s not on the target list,” Gortney said.

Gadhafi has ceased air operations after coalition strikes targeted air defenses and an airfield, as well as ground troops attacking the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, Gortney said.

“We judge the strikes to have been very effective,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had already declared the no-fly zone a success.

"Effectively, the no-fly zone has been put in place," Mullen said on “Meet the Press.” "We have halted [Gadhafi's forces] in the vicinity of Benghazi, which is where he most recently was on the march, and it is hard to say what'll happen in the next few days and weeks."

Despite the U.S.-led coalition’s apparent success knocking out air defenses and targeting loyalist ground troops, Gadhafi remained defiant, saying in a message broadcast on Libyan television, “We will not leave our land and we will liberate it.”

The question of Gadhafi’s future remains uncertain, Mullen admitted in the interview. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have previously said that Gadhafi must go, but the U.N. resolution guiding the military campaign has a more limited scope.

“Certainly, the goals of this campaign right now are limited, and it isn’t about seeing him go,” Mullen said. “It’s about supporting the U.N. resolution, which talked about eliminating or limiting Gadhafi’s ability to harm his own people.”

Other thorny political questions also reared their heads. 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 the league, which had previously voiced support for a no-fly zone, later on Sunday reaffirmed its support for the U.S.-led coalition in the face of Gadhafi’s claim the U.S.-led action had killed women, children and clerics. And the French Defense Ministry said four jets from the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar were reportedly preparing to enter the battle.

In addition to Qatar, Gortney said Sunday that Spain, Belgium and Denmark have joined the coalition. For now, however, air combat operations are being carried out by the United States, France, and Britain.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday the Pentagon expects to turn control of the Libya military mission over to a coalition — led either by the French and British or by NATO — “in a matter of days," the Associated Press reported.

 The effects of the coalition’s attacks were apparent in eastern Libya.

Television carried images of 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.

Gortney said coalition forces are not coordinating with opposition formations on the ground. When asked what the U.S. expects loyalist forces to do in order to avoid being attacked—lay down their arms in the face of the opposition or simply cease attacking—Gortney said he wasn’t ready to answer.

Though French fighters were the first in action Saturday, U.S. planes became an increasing force in the skies over Libya following the Tomahawk missile strikes. In addition to B-2 stealth bombers, the Air Force deployed F-15s and F-16s. 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. Allied planes, including British bombers, also participated.

"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."

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.

At least 25 ships from coalition nations are supporting the operations. But, Gortney said Sunday, the U.S. remained committed to Obama’s blunt statement that the U.S. “is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya.”

carrollc@stripes.osd.mil

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