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WASHINGTON — The United States has already turned over responsibility for enforcing an arms embargo against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to NATO, and will soon hand off policing of the no-fly zone, the Pentagon announced Friday.

But what is likely the toughest and most delicate job — protection of civilians — will remain the responsibility of the United States for now, said Adm. William Gortney, director of the Joint Staff.

After intense deliberations, NATO agreed Thursday to begin assuming leadership over the international action against Gadhafi, a step U.S. administration officials had been promising would happen for several days.

But under the partial handoff, the United States will continue to command coalition airstrikes such as those intended to protect civilians in the cities of Ajdibiyah, Misrata and Zintan. There, forces loyal to Gadhafi are dug in and attacking civilians, Gortney said.

Strikes continue against Libyan armor and supply lines outside the cities in an effort to weaken the forces occupying the cities. But urban air strikes are thought to be too risky, Gortney said, because of the difficulty discerning friends from foes in built-up environments.

“The last thing we want to do is put the Libyan people at greater risk by our actions than the actions being taken by the Gadhafi regime,” he said.

Most of the strikes in the preceding 24 hours were not pre-planned, Gortney said, but were against targets of opportunity, including Scud garrisons in Tripoli and air defense emplacements around the country.

Just more than half of the recent strike missions were flown by U.S. pilots, he said.


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