US, allies seek accord on Libya campaign
Airstrikes continue to target Tripoli
WASHINGTON — President Obama worked yesterday to bridge differences among allies about how to manage the military campaign in Libya, as airstrikes continued to rock Tripoli and forces loyal to Moammar Khadafy showed no sign of ending their siege of rebel-held cities.
On a day when two US airmen bailed out over Libya and were rescued after the crash of their fighter jet, Obama and the leaders of Britain and France stepped up efforts to work out an accord on who would be in charge of military operations once the initial onslaught on Libya’s air defense systems was complete.
Obama reiterated that the United States would step back from the leading role within days, but he also said the nation is confronting the complexities of running the military campaign with a multilateral force cobbled together quickly and without a clear understanding among its members about their roles.
The president expressed confidence that the coalition would resolve disagreements over the role of NATO, which had flared in recent days over France’s insistence that the alliance not play a leading role in the operation. NATO now seems likely to provide “command and control’’ functions, but with a separate authority running the operation, which includes Arab and other non-NATO countries.
Even as the Western allies tried to settle management issues, they were still struggling to corral Arab backing for the campaign. Obama, still traveling in Central America, telephoned the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, yesterday to nail down his support. So far, Qatar is the only Arab state to offer fighter jets to help enforce a no-fly zone, and there were signs that other Arab states were wavering in their support.
The tension and confusion laid bare the unwieldiness of the coalition — which US officials conceded had been put together on the fly — even four days into the operation, after the United States had fired 160 Tomahawk missiles and lost its first plane, an F-15E Strike Eagle, which crashed in the desert near Benghazi after mechanical troubles. The plane’s two-member crew had minor injuries but was rescued.
While recovering the pilot, US Marines dropped two 500-pound bombs. A Marine Corps officer strongly denied a report that Marines fired shots at civilians during the rescue.
The weapons officer from the crashed jet was found on the ground by “the people of Libya,’’ said Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, the tactical commander of the US-led effort in the country. At a Pentagon briefing, Locklear did not describe them as rebels but made clear that they were not Khadafy loyalists.
The jet crash was just one snag in the complex mission.
“This command-and-control business is complicated,’’ Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said to reporters with him in Moscow. “We haven’t done something like this, kind of on the fly before. So it’s not surprising to me that it would take a few days to get it all sorted out.’’
At least three bomb blasts were heard in Tripoli last evening as flares from Libyan antiaircraft guns arced across the sky. Attacks by pro-Khadafy forces were particularly intense in the western cities of Zintan and Misurata — where snipers and artillery have killed dozens over the past five days and wounded scores more, a rebel spokesman said.
Khadafy made a brief but defiant appearance on Libyan television last night, appearing at what reporters were told was his Tripoli residence to denounce the bombing raids and pledge victory. “I am here. I am here. I am here,’’ he shouted from a balcony.
Locklear said that his intelligence reports confirmed that Khadafy’s forces were attacking civilians in Misurata. The admiral, who briefed reporters at the Pentagon by telephone yesterday afternoon, did not say whether there had been a response yet, but said, “We are considering all options.’’
A rebel spokesman, reached by satellite phone in Misurata, said he had not seen any evidence of airstrikes there against the Khadafy forces, which continued to shell the city and threaten residents with sniper fire. “They now control all the way to the town center, and they have put snipers on the rooftops along the way,’’ said the rebel spokesman, Mohamed, using only his first name to protect his family.
A doctor at the central Misurata hospital said that 13 residents had died yesterday, bringing the total casualty count to 90 over the previous nine days. Rebels say the city has been without telecommunications for three weeks and without water or electricity for nine days during the siege by Khadafy forces.
Despite statements from US military officials that the fighting and level of coalition “kinetic activity’’ in Libya would soon decline, the Pentagon released figures showing that yesterday there were more coalition airstrikes, 57, than on any day since Saturday, the first day of the US-led assaults.
In El Salvador, Obama said that the coalition would “fairly shortly’’ be able to claim it had imposed a no-fly zone over Libya. “We will also be able to say we have averted immediate tragedy,’’ he said at a news conference with the president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes.
But the building of this coalition has been tortuous, and analysts said holding it together will be no less challenging. Yesterday, NATO countries were making slow and ill-tempered progress toward deciding who will run the operation.
France proposed a committee of foreign ministers of countries involved in the operation to act as a “political steering body,’’ France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppe, told Parliament yesterday. NATO would provide “support’’ — the military “command and control’’ necessary to coordinate the ships and planes of various countries. A senior US official declined to comment on the French proposal, though he noted that the command structure had to encompass NATO and non-NATO countries — akin to the International Security Assistance Force, which oversees coalition forces in Afghanistan, or earlier coalition campaigns in the Balkans.
“What we’re saying right now is that NATO has a key role to play here,’’ Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said to reporters on Obama’s plane, flying from Chile to El Salvador.
After two days of meetings in Brussels, NATO ambassadors will meet today after getting advice from their governments to try to approve a deal.
France argues that NATO command would be opposed by the Arab League as Western interference in the Muslim world.
Turkey, the only Muslim-majority member of NATO, is trying to keep lines open to Khadafy as well as to the Libyan opposition.
Obama called Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain yesterday to try to arrive at a solution.