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Obama schedules Monday address on Libya

President expected to detail handover to NATO control

By Robert Burns and Ben Feller
Associated Press / March 26, 2011

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WASHINGTON — To a nation and a Congress seeking answers, President Obama will offer on Monday his most expansive explanation of the US role in the Libyan war, delivering a speech that is expected to cover the path ahead and his rationale about the appropriate use of force.

Obama’s 7:30 p.m. speech, to be given from the National Defense University in Washington, comes as leading Republican lawmakers and some fellow Democrats have pressed him for clarity about the goals and exit strategy of the United States. Obama and top US security officials spent about an hour talking to lawmakers yesterday, with the president answering direct questions from critics.

For a president who was on a Latin American outreach trip when the UN-sanctioned military assault on the Libyan regime began, the speech offers him his best chance to explain the purpose and scope of the mission to a nation weary of war. Obama has spoken about the matter since authorizing the use of force, but not in a setting as prominent as an evening speech, as he seeks to take command of the story.

Obama is expected to explain how the US-led campaign is shifting to NATO control, and how the multinational approach with Arab support puts the United States in the strongest position to achieve the goals of protecting Libyan civilians, a White House official said.

The president will also put the Libyan campaign into a broader context of his decisions about the use of force, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s thinking. US-led forces began launching missile strikes last Saturday against embattled Libyan strongman Moammar Khadafy defenses to establish a no-fly zone and prevent him from attacking his own people.

With the Obama administration eager to take a back seat, it remained unclear when NATO would assume command of the no-fly patrols. Also unclear was when — and even if — the US military’s Africa Command would hand off to NATO the lead role in attacking Libyan ground targets.

The US commander in charge of the overall international mission, Army General Carter Ham, said “We could easily destroy all the regime forces that are in Ajdabiya,’’ but the city itself would be destroyed in the process. “We’d be killing the very people that we’re charged with protecting.’’

Instead, the focus is on disrupting the communications and supply lines that allow Khadafy’s forces to keep fighting in Ajdabiya and other urban areas such as Misrata, Ham said in a telephone interview from his Africa Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

The White House announcement of Monday’s speech came after Obama’s teleconference yesterday with a bipartisan group of key members of Congress. The call came amid complaints on Capitol Hill that Obama was not adequately consulting about the intervention in Libya with Capitol Hill.

During the call, Obama and other officials emphasized to lawmakers that the United States’ military role would be decreasing going forward, according to an official who listened to the conversation and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the closed meeting.

Obama reiterated the US position that Khadafy should leave power. But he said, as he has publicly, that the United States planned to follow the mission of the UN Security Council resolution, which centers on the protection of Libyan civilians. The campaign is not aimed at killing Khadafy, the official said.

House Speaker John A. Boehner asked a series of questions and got direct answers from both the president and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the official said. The president also took questions from the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, and from other lawmakers.

After the call, a spokesman for Boehner said the speaker wants the Obama administration to do more to explain how the mission in Libya “is consistent with US policy goals.’’

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