March 23, 2011— -- The United States could hand over its leading role in the Libya airstrikes to NATO as early as this weekend, a U.S. official told ABC News, but there is uncertainty over whether NATO will accept that role.
The administration is focused on "an orderly transfer to NATO over the weekend," but there is still concern that the United States will have to carry much of the burden even after -- and if -- NATO takes over, the official said.
Officials from around the world have been invited to participate in a political meeting this weekend to form a "contact group" to continue the coalition's work in Libya, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced today. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the meeting will signal that it's not just NATO that's taking over the leadership in Libya, but a larger group of countries.
"Today we have agreed that this leadership structure would be both NATO and the European Union," Juppe said, according to wire reports. "NATO for planning and operational supervision of the operations, and the EU for everything related to humanitarian action."
The Pentagon said today the coalition has full control of the skies in Libya, and there's no longer a threat from surface-to-air missiles being launched by Moammar Gadhafi. But on the ground, the embattled leader's forces continue to attack civilians.
"We have no indication that Gadhafi's forces are adhering to UN Resolution 1973. And that is why we continue to pressurize those forces," Rear Adm. Gerald Hueber, the chief of staff for Task Force Odyssey Dawn, said today.
Hueber said that as of this morning the total number of sorties was 175 with the number of non-U.S. flights increasing. They're targeting tanks, rocket launchers, artillery, as well as ground forces but only those operating outside of cities, pushing into Misrata, Zawiyah and Ajdabiyah.
The Obama administration is anxious to hand over leadership quickly. President Obama pledged that the United States was not engaging in a long-term commitment when he announced his decision to participate in the strikes.
On Tuesday, he said the United States will implement an "exit strategy" in the coming days, though that doesn't entail pulling out of the Libya operation completely.
"The exit strategy will be executed this week, in the sense that we will be pulling back from our much more active efforts to shape the environment," Obama said in an interview with Univision. "We will still be in a support role. We will be supplying jamming, intelligence and other assets unique to us."
The United States will in fact still be a partner in implementing the no-fly zone, but the president did not outline the exit strategy of ending that engagement.
But the coalition, though expanding, is frayed. Some NATO members, like Turkey, are skeptical about the strikes and civilian casualties while others like Italy and Norway are demanding more guidance.
It's also unclear what role NATO will play. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Tuesday that the Libya airstrikes are not a NATO mission, contradicting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who told ABC News "NATO will definitely be involved" and that she's "very relaxed" about the handoff.
"First of all, this isn't a NATO mission. This is a mission in which the NATO machinery may be used for command and control," Gates said in Moscow. But "this command and control business is complicated. We haven't done something like this, kind of on the fly before. And so it's not surprising to me that it would take a few days to get it all sorted out."
The Obama administration is also anxious about the costs of this undertaking and how "imprecise" its message has been about Libya, which has added to friction with some allies who were otherwise supporters of the effort.
Gadhafi shows little sign of giving up, delivering a fiery speech on state television Tuesday in his first appearance since the air strikes began.
"We will be victorious in the end … I do not fear storms that sweep the horizon, nor do I fear the planes that throw black destruction," the Libyan leader said in a speech to supporters broadcast on state TV. "This assault ... is by a bunch of fascists who will end up in the dustbin of history."
"I am resistant, my house is here in my tent... I am the rightful owner, and the creator of tomorrow. I am here. I am here. I am here."
But U.S. officials tell ABC News that Gadhafi is increasingly anxious, constantly on the move and not knowing who to trust -- though he is being encouraged to stick it out by at least one of his sons.
"Gadhafi is not sleeping. He oscillates between crazy and then some sanity," a U.S. official said. "He is emotional and moving around a ton."
Clinton told ABC News there's evidence that the embattled leader, through his people, is reaching out to allies around the world exploring options.
"Some of it is theater. Some of it is, you know, kind of, shall we say game playing, to try to do one message to one group, another message to somebody else," Clinton said. "A lot of it is just the way he behaves. It's somewhat unpredictable. But some of it, we think, is exploring. You know, what are my options, where could I go, what could I do. And we would encourage that."
Despite the coalition's barrage, Gadhafi has been able to launch new military assaults on rebel territory in Ajdabiya, and to the east in Misrata, say the regime is also on the attack.
As late as Tuesday, the Libyan coastal city of Misrata was under attack from Gadhafi's troops and tanks, with residents saying sniper fire and shelling has been unrelenting as the military operation enters its fifth day.
Air Force Personnel Rescue Was Stroke of Luck
The two U.S. Air Force personnel who ejected from their F-15E Strike Eagle late Monday are back in U.S. hands and undergoing the reintegration process.
"The aircrew are in U.S. care and are going through a reintegration process to ensure their mental and physical health," said the public affairs officer abroad the USS Whitney. "The reintegration process is standard for any military member who experiences a traumatic or stressful event such as ejecting from an aircraft and landing in a possible hostile area. The aircrew are expected to return to their unit when it is decided they are ready."
The one man who was rescued by locals was greeted as a hero by residents yesterday, even after several civilians were injured from 500-pound bombs dropped by U.S. jets.
After the ejection due to an equipment malfunction that caused the plane to crash 25 miles east of Benghazi, Libya, the two crew members parachuted down into the darkness as the plane smashed into the empty field.
The pilot, now separated from his partner, held a GPS beacon and a pistol, radioing for help as he saw villagers approach.
Just after 1:30 a.m., U.S. jets arrived and dropped two 500-pound bombs to push back the unidentified group that was approaching the pilot. The force of the blast and shrapnel injured numerous civilians.
Less than an hour later, two MV-22 Ospreys reached the stranded fighter pilot and rescued him.
Meanwhile in an nearby field, the other ejected crew member, a weapon systems officer, landed. Though he'd injured his ankle in the incident, he was able to hide at the el-Amruni family farm.
It turned out that one of the family members, Hamid Moussa el-Amruni, was hit in the bombing run. He, along with others, were thought to be Ghadafi forces, according to Hamid's cousin Saad.
Amazingly, Hamid is not holding a grudge.
"They bombed us. It was to protect their pilots to push back the Gadhafi mercenaries," Moussa el-Amruni said.
"It was a misunderstanding. We forgive them of this and we thank the coalition forces and America and France."
Soon, he said, the situation was cleared up. The crewmember was given food and juice and sent to Benghazi, where he was handed over to American forces.
According to U.S. officials, a major stroke of luck led to the weapons officer's rescue, as it was thanks to the help of a Libyan citizen who was once associated with the US Embassy in Tripoli.
The Libyan national, who had received a grant from the US Embassy in Tripoli, used personal knowledge of the State Department to phone its operations center to notify them about the missing airman's whereabouts.
Meanwhile, the crash site is in the middle of a field, 500 yards from the road in the small village of Ghot Sultan has become a place of awe and amazement for local residents.
So many people trampled through the field today to see the wreckage of the F-15 that there is now a dirt road.
Parents brought their kids to see this hulking piece of American war machinery. Its wings and tailfins almost the only recognizable part, with the rest burned almost beyond recognition.
A local man told ABC news about the confusion and alarm as the plane crashed to the ground.
"At first we were scared, we thought it was a Gadhafi plane that would strike us," the man said. "Then we saw the plane was on fire, spinning around and realized it was not a Libyan plane."
ABC News' Huma Khan and Miguel Marquez contributed to this report.