After a day of bombardment by U.S. and European forces aimed at halting attacks on Libyan civilians by Muammar Gaddafi, America's top military commander said Sunday that the removal of the Libyan leader was not the goal of the current allied miliary operation.
Adm. Mike Mullin, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Fox News Sunday that outcome of military action Saturday and Sunday by French and British fighter jets and a U.S. warship was "very uncertain," the Telegraph reported.
He also made it clear that Washington did not see the goal of "Operation Odyssey Dawn" as removing Gaddafi but rather as narrowly focused on protecting civilians and aiding humanitarian efforts.
"We have halted [Gaddafi] in the vicinity of Benghazi, which is where he was most recently on the march," Mullin said, adding that a no-fly zone had effectively been achieved, with Western forces establishing combat air patrols over the city that would be extended westward toward Tripoli over time.
"The focus of the United Nations Security Council resolution was really [the rebel stronghold of] Benghazi, specifically, and to protect civilians. And we have done that, or we have started to do that. This is not about going after Gaddafi himself or attacking him at this particular point in time."
Gaddafi earlier Sunday warned that Libyans were armed for a long war in the Mediterranean "battlefield," and that air strikes by allied forces during the weekend represented a confrontation between the Libyan people and "the new Nazis."
"All the Libyan people are united. The Libyan men and women have been given weapons and bombs," the Libyan leader said in an audio message, CNN reported. "You will not advance. You will not step on this land. We promise you a long, drawn-out war with no limits."
The leaders of Britain, France and the United States will "fall like Hitler... Mussolini," he said.
U.S., British and French forces have fired on Libya from the air and sea in the past 24 hours, two days after the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1973 that, with Arab backing, authorized allies to "take all necessary measures" to prevent Gaddafi's forces from attacking civilians.
Operation Odyssey Dawn is the West's biggest intervention in the Arab world since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq eight years ago.
U.S. warships and a British submarine fired at least 124 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya over the weekend, the U.S. military said. And three U.S. B-2 stealth bombers dropped 40 bombs on a major airfield in a bid to destroy much of the Libyan air force, CBS News reported, while fighter planes also searched for ground forces to attack.
Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, in a Pentagon briefing posted on YouTube said the missiles "struck more than 20 integrated air-defense systems and other defense facilities ashore." He said the strikes were "carefully co-ordinated with our coalition partners."
He added: "I want to stress that this is just the first phase of what will likely be a multi-phased military operation designed to enforce the United Nations resolution and deny the Libyan regime the ability to use force against its own people," the spokesman reportedly said.
The British Ministry of Defense confirmed that U.K. forces focused missile strikes near the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
And it emerged that at least one Arab nation helped enforce the U.N.-backed no-fly zone. "Qatar is participating in the military action because it is necessary for Arab states to take part," Sheikh Hamad, who is also foreign minister, told Sky News. The United Arab Emirates would also participate, Sky News reported, though this had not been confirmed publicly.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said Sunday that Gaddafi was feeling the "unified will" of the international community through the military campaign.
"He has been killing his own people. He declared that he will search house to house and kill all the people. That is unacceptable," the U.N. secretary general said in Paris.
The U.S. and European strikes, aimed at enforcing the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone, were a sharp escalation in the international effort to stop Gaddafi after weeks of pleading by the rebels who have seen cities they'd captured retaken by forces loyal to Gaddafi wielding superior air power and weaponry.
Mullin said Sunday that in the next few days, the U.S. expected to relinquish its leadership of the operation, though he did not say who would assume the lead, Reuters reported. The U.S. role would shift to support operations, including intelligence, aerial refueling and humanitarian efforts.
The weekend Allied attack began with French war planes entering Libyan air space Saturday in an attempt to push back an assault by fighters loyal to Gaddafi.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy said Saturday that an operation supported by France, Britain and the U.S., and backed by Arab nations, was halting air attacks by Gaddafi's forces and would continue unless the Libyan leader ceased fire.
Reuters quoted a French military source as saying that France had five war planes operating over Libya, including an AWACS reconnaissance plane and four attack aircraft, two Rafales and two Mirages. They fired on a Libyan military vehicle, CNN reported.
Military action could be halted at any time if Gaddafi stopped his forces attacking, Sarkozy reportedly said.
The action was in response to attacks Saturday morning by Gaddafi's forces on Benghazi despite his promises of adhering to the U.N. cease-fire.
Residents of the city, Libya's second-largest, awoke Saturday to the sound of jets flying low overhead.
Earlier Saturday, Gaddafi issued defiant messages to international powers, CNN reported.
"I have all the Libyan people with me and I'm prepared to die. And they are prepared to die for me. Men, women and even children," Gaddafi said in a letter addressed to U.S. President Barack Obama and read to reporters by a government spokesman in Tripoli on Saturday.
Rebel fighters, in a rare victory earlier in the day, managed to shoot down one of Gaddafi's planes mid-flight. The plane crashed in the western side of the city in a ball of fire and smoke.
The Gaddafi forces used Girad Soviet-made rockets to pound the outskirts of the city, destroying homes and incinerating rebel cars. Loyalist tanks apparently made it to the west of Benghazi before being captured. The streets showed signs of tank tracks, and cars had been flattened as if run over by tanks. Rebel soldiers claim to have captured eight of Gaddafi’s tanks.
Gaddafi’s forces attempted to enter Benghazi from several sides, prompting rebel forces to push back with a wave of trucks.
During a battle for the western gate, where rebel fighters gathered with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, Toyotas mounted with anti-aircraft guns pushed forward. Bullets flew from different directions sporadically.
Grenades and bullets left homes on the western side of Benghazi pockmarked. Residents said Gaddafi fighers wearing civilian clothes were holed up in several building from which they had begun randomly shooting cars on Saturday morning.
Locals showed GlobalPost at least three civilian cars hit by bullets, one with blood stains on the passenger and driver’s sides.
Just a few miles outside Benghazi laid the burned remains of what looked like three rebel soldiers inside a truck carrying a heavy weapon. Rebels looted a nearby army barracks that Gaddafi forces had occupied overnight and where they had left fresh grenade rounds in boxes.
On the outskirts of the front line and under fresh attacks from Gaddafi's Girad rockets, some rebels fled the onslaught Saturday and others pressed on.
The battle for Benghazi shifted continuously throughout the day Saturday.
Rebels pushed Gaddafi forces back Saturday morning but then retreated from returning rocket fire, giving Gaddafi forces a chance to re-enter the city.
“Where is Obama?” one man asked. “Yesterday Gaddafi says he’s not attacking Benghazi. Today there’s tanks and artillery.”
Gaddafi's forces entered Benghazi while the rebels were erecting a concrete barrier to defend their headquarters from attacks, a rebel spokesman told Reuters.
Pro-government forces also bombed the road to the airport.
The Libyan government denied its forces were fighting in or around Benghazi and blamed rebels for breaking the cease-fire.
Fresh fighting was also reported in the cities of Misurata and Ajdabiya, Al Jazeera reported.
In line with the U.N. resolution, President Barack Obama on Friday ruled out sending American ground forces into Libya and said the United States would take a supporting role with European and Arab allies in the lead, AP reports.
"Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gaddafi would commit atrocities against his people," he said, as reported in the AP. "Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun."
Obama's forceful language and threats of military action come after weeks of hesitation and uncertainty concerning how the United States should respond to the crisis.
— James Foley contributed to this report from Benghazi, Freya Petersen from Boston and Hanna Inger Win from Mumbai
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