US officials: Libyan operation could last months

By Bradley Klapper

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 27 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — Ahead of President Barack Obama's national address on Libya, top officials of his administration claimed major strides were being made in bolstering rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi's forces but acknowledged the international operation could drag on for months.

Lawmakers of both parties voiced skepticism over the length, scope and costs of the mission.

"We have to a very large extent completed the military mission in terms of getting it set up. Now, the no-fly zone and even the humanitarian side will have to be sustained for some period of time," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Asked for how long on NBC's "Meet the Press," Gates said, "Nobody knows the answer to that question." But he said sustaining the no-fly zone would take "a lot less effort" than establishing it. He said the Pentagon was planning to shift some of its resources to European and other countries pledging to take on a larger role

On ABC's "This Week," Gates said some NATO officials suggested it would take three months "but people in the Pentagon think it could be far longer than that."

Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the rounds of network talk shows — in interviews taped Saturday and aired Sunday — to promote the administration's case before Obama's speech at 7:30 p.m. EDT Monday.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which took over enforcing the no-fly zone from the U.S. late last week, seemed likely to expand its air mission on Sunday to assume command of American-led air strikes against Gadhafi's ground forces. The U.S. is eager to hand off responsibility for air strikes to the alliance.

Clinton told CBS' "Face the Nation" that no decision had yet been made on the whether to arm rebels seeking Gadhafi's ouster. So far, "results on the ground are pretty significant," she said.

The secretary of state said she recognizes that many Americans are concerned about the role of the U.S. — already burdened by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and that "the president will speak to the country Monday night to answer a lot of those concerns."

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sounded some of those concerns in advance of Monday's speech.

Lugar said the president still has not developed a plan spelling out the extent of future U.S. involvement in Libya and how objectives are to be achieved. Nor, Lugar said, has there been a debate over how to pay the tab and how much it could total.

"There has to be objectives and a plan and an agreement that we're prepared to devote the military forces but also the money," Lugar said on "Meet the Press."

"Who knows how long this goes on and, furthermore, who has budgeted for Libya at all?" asked Lugar, who in the past has been supportive of Obama on most military issues.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Armed Services Committee chairman, was broadly supportive of the president's steps so far. "It is a flyover which is succeeding. It has set Gadhafi back. He's on his heels now," Levin said on CNN's "State of the Union."

Still, Levin said it remains unclear how long the air campaign will have to last if Gadhafi clings to power.

"The people of Libya can remove their dictator. But we are not the ones to remove him," Levin said, echoing the administration's insistence that the Western military mission is not to target Gadhafi, even though Obama has said the autocratic ruler of more than four decades must go.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., told "Fox News Sunday" that the United States, in the actions it and other Western nations have taken in Libya, has sided with "the mass of people yearning to be free within the Arab world."

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