Altaf Qadri, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Two weeks after a dark-of-night barrage of mostly U.S. missiles and bombs opened the international air assault on Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, the American combat role is ending, the rag-tag rebels are reeling and the Pentagon is betting its European allies can finish the job.
Gadhafi is still standing, with a few uncertain signs that his inner circle could crack. The Obama administration is hoping that if Gadhafi's government doesn't implode soon, a relentless campaign of airstrikes on his tanks, air defenses and most trusted army units will at least weaken his ability to survive a renewed uprising by a disjointed opposition. The revels initially rattled Gadhafi but in recent days have given up most of their gains.
The bottom line, according to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "He's still killing his people."
So the mission remains incomplete, but the U.S. is following through on a pledge to shift the main combat burden to Britain, France and other NATO allies.
Starting Sunday, no U.S. combat aircraft are to fly strike missions in Libya. Also falling silent on Sunday will be the initial workhorses of the military campaign: U.S. Navy destroyers and submarines that launched Tomahawk cruise missiles from the positions in the Mediterranean Sea.
The planes and naval vessels will be on standby in case NATO commanders decide their own forces cannot handle the mission on their own. Combat air missions will continue to be flown by Britain, France and other NATO member countries.
A larger group of participating air forces will patrol over Libya to ensure that Gadhafi's air force stays grounded. U.S. planes will support them with refueling aircraft and electronic jammers.
The Navy began the operation March 19 with 12 ships in the Mediterranean. As of Friday, nine remained: the submarines USS Florida and USS Scranton; destroyers USS Stout and USS Barry; amphibious warships USS Kearsarge and USS Ponce; the command ship USS Mount Whitney; and two supply ships, USNS Robert E. Peary and USNS Kanawha.
The subs and the destroyers are armed with Tomahawks. Marine Harrier attack planes launch from aboard the Kearsarge, and the Mount Whitney had served as a floating command post for the American admiral who was the on-scene commander until NATO took control Thursday.
The Mount Whitney remains assigned to the mission but the new operational commander, Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, is working ashore at his NATO headquarters in Naples, Italy. The U.S. Navy is likely to peel more ships away from the mission in coming days, including some of those with Tomahawks.
The international military mission has been limited from the start, with the stated objective of protecting Libyan civilians from attack. But until this weekend's U.S. stand down, Air Force and Marine attack planes have chased down Libyan tanks and other targets on a daily basis.
Marine Lt. Col. Shawn R. Hermley, a Harrier pilot who estimates he has flown about a dozen combat missions over Libya, said in an interview Friday that he's not personally bothered that he'll no longer be dropping 500-pound guided bombs on Gadhafi's tanks, armored personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery. He said his Harrier detachment has made a difference, while taking care not to risk civilian casualties.
"If we were to walk away today, I'd be very proud of that and realize that we've made a significant impact to protect the people of Libya," he said by telephone from aboard the Kearsarge.
Still to be decided is whether the White House will up the ante and provide arms to the rebels. That step, say some congressional supporters of the Libya mission, is crucial to ensuring that the strategic goal of ousting Gadhafi is achieved before he kills still more opponents.
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