Libyan Attacks Intensify but Coalition Strained

Libyan men celebrates on a destroyed tank belonging to the forces of Moammar Gadhafi in the outskirts of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Sunday, March 20, 2011. The tanks were destroyed earlier by U.S. and allied airstrikes.
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The U.S. role in Libya is growing murkier as coalition forces continue to launch fresh attacks against Moammar Gadhafi's assets and allies such as Italy and Norway look for guidance on who is leading the strikes.

Obama administration officials have repeatedly said the military operation will be short in duration and scope, and that the United States will hand over authority to its coalition partners soon. The transition will happen in a "matter of days, not a matter of weeks," President Obama said today.

"How quickly this transfer takes places will be determined by the recommendations of our commanding officers."

But there is little clarity and a lot of hesitation on the part of coalition members on who will take over the reins.

NATO members have been divided over the goal and mission of the U.N.-backed air strikes, with Turkey and Russia leading the criticism. And such uncertainty has already strained the coalition.

Italian Foreign Minister Frattini today said Italy might "rethink the use of its bases" if the Libyan operation is not handed off to NATO.

Italy has been pushing for a NATO command center for the Libyan operations since the Saturday meeting in Paris and wants it set up in the coming days, which looks increasingly unlikely to happen.

Norway is reportedly also suspending its participation in military operations in Libya until the question of who is in command is clarified.

Members of the Arab League have also expressed skepticism. There were several calls from some members of the Arab League this weekend to stop the strikes, given reports of civilian deaths being broadcast by Libyan state TV. The United Arab Emirates, which was to be a key participant, has decided not to send military aircraft.

Obama today sought to temper some of the concerns about the mission, saying the United States' advanced military capabilities and initial leadership "shapes the environment in which a no-fly zone would be effective."

"After the initial thrust that has disabled Gadhafi's air defenses, limits his ability to threaten large population centers like Benghazi, that there is going to be a transition taking place in which we have a range of coalition partners... who will then be participating in establishing a no-fly zone," Obama said in Chile. "So there will be a transition taking place of which we are one of the partners."

There have been mixed messages from U.S. commanders on how the mission will aid opposition forces.

Gen. Carter F. Ham, who is leading the U.S. effort in Libya, said today that the mission is "not to support opposition forces," but later added that the coalition will not support rebels if they take offensive action against Gadhafi's regime, only if they are attacked.

Ham also acknowledged that the task of handing over leadership of the operation from the United States to another coalition member will be complicated.

"It's not so simple as just having a handshake someplace and saying, 'OK, you're now in charge,'" he said. "There are some complex tasks that have to occur."

Defining the opposition in Libya is also "a very problematic situation," Ham said.

"They're basically civilians trying to protect their civilian lives, businesses, and families," he said. "It's not a clear distinction, because we're not talking about a regular military force."

View The Libya Unrest in Pictures

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