Libya no-fly zone widening; Gadhafi not targeted

By Robert Burns

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 21 2011 3:25 p.m. MDT

Libyan rebels patrol the center of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Sunday, March 20, 2011. A senior Pentagon official says U.S. and allied attacks in Libya have been very effective in degrading Moammar Gadhafi's ability to threaten planes enforcing a no-fly zone over the North African country.

Anja Niedringhaus, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The opening phase of U.S. and coalition military action in Libya bruised Moammar Gadhafi's ground forces and set the stage for extending a no-fly zone across the country, but American officials made clear Monday their military goals stop short of targeting Gadhafi or directly assisting rebel forces.

Army Gen. Carter Ham, the lead U.S. commander, said it was possible that Gadhafi might manage to retain power. "I don't think anyone would say that is ideal," the general said, foreseeing a possible outcome that stands in contrast to President Barack Obama's declaration that Gadhafi must go.

The Libyan leader has ruled the North African nation for 42 years and was a target of American air attacks in 1986.

The full dimensions of the Libya crisis are still coming into view, with questions remaining about how far the Obama administration is willing to go to stop Gadhafi, whether the international military coalition will hold together and whether dissent in his own ranks will soon doom Gadhafi.

Traveling in Chile, Obama said removing Gadhafi is not the military's mission. A combination of other measures including United Nations sanctions designed to isolate the Libyan leader are the correct approach to hastening his fall, Obama said, adding that the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military action did not sanction regime change.

"We are going to stick to that mandate," Obama said.

He has little choice if he wants to hold Arab and other backing and hand off front-line responsibility for a no-fly zone to European or other allied warplanes in the coming days.

Discord was evident Monday in Europe over whether the military operation in Libya should be controlled by NATO. Turkey blocked the alliance's participation, while Italy issued a veiled threat to withdraw the use of its bases unless the alliance was put in charge. Germany also questioned the wisdom of the operation, and Russia's Vladimir Putin railed against the U.N.-backed airstrikes as outside meddling "reminiscent of a medieval call for a crusade."

In Russia for an awkwardly timed visit on other topics, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it is a mistake to set Gadhafi's ouster as a military goal.

"I think it's pretty clear to everybody that Libya would be better off without Gadhafi," he said in an interview with Interfax news agency. "That is a matter for the Libyans themselves to decide," and given the opportunity they may take it, Gates said.

At the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner suggested the administration's goal of new leadership in Libya was not an immediate objective.

"We want to be clear that, in the long-term, we do not see Gadhafi as a legitimate ruler, and we believe he should step down," Toner told reporters. "We are going to, in the long term, continue to apply pressure on him and his associates."

The direction of the international military campaign is now shifting from crippling Libya's air defenses and halting a Libyan attack on the rebel stronghold in Benghazi to expanding the no-fly zone and setting the stage for a flow of humanitarian supplies to displaced Libyans. The air campaign began Saturday with a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missile attacks by U.S. and British vessels in the Mediterranean.

Attacks were continuing, but on a far smaller scale, Ham and others said. The general made clear that his intention was to stick closely to the limitations of the U.N. Security Council mandate, which set the primary goal of protecting civilians from attacks by the Libyan military. Thus, if Gadhafi forces back away from rebel-held areas and do not demonstrate hostile intent or movement, they will be spared.

"There is no intent to completely destroy the Libyan military forces," Ham said.

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