NYT Article 3/25/11: NATO Set to Take Full Command of Libyan Campaign

NATO Set to Take Full Command of Libyan Campaign

Rebel fighters near Ajdabiya, on Thursday. “We are trying to lead them to peace,” one rebel officer said of negotiations with a government military unit. More Photos »

BRUSSELS — Overcoming internal squabbles, NATO prepared on Friday to assume leadership from the United States of the military campaign against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces, senior NATO officials said, while the allied effort won a rare military commitment in the Arab world when the United Arab Emirates said it would send warplanes to join patrols with Western allies.

Meeting late Thursday night, NATO agreed that it would not only take over command and control of the no-fly zone, but also of the effort to protect civilians through aggressive coalition airstrikes on Colonel Qaddafi’s troops on the ground, the officials said. Details of the second part of the operation will be worked out in a formal military planning document over the next couple of days, the officials said, but all NATO countries took the political decision that the alliance would command and coordinate the entire military campaign.  Non-NATO members participating in the operation would have a seat and a voice, on the model of the operation in Afghanistan, where some 20 other nations participate in the NATO-led war.

 There will be a meeting of coalition foreign ministers on Tuesday in London, as the French and British wanted, the officials said. That meeting and consequent meetings will deal with the larger political campaign, including sanctions and other measures designed to put more pressure on Colonel Qaddafi to quit. It will also have representation from the United Nations, the Arab League and the African Union. But that meeting of what the British are calling “the contact group” will not be running the military side of the operation, the officials said.

A sticking point in the negotiations was what military officials call the “no-drive zone,” the bombing of Colonel Qaddafi’s ground forces, tanks and artillery outside Libyan cities. France wanted to have clearer leadership role of the campaign while Turkey was concerned about its turning into a larger operation involving ground troops. Many countries, like Italy and Norway, however, said they would participate only if NATO ran the entire military operation.

France was placated by the London coalition, while Turkey’s fears were allayed by putting the military campaign under the full control of NATO, which operates only by the unanimous consent of its member nations. The United States, which contributes most of NATO’s military capability and traditionally dominates behind the scenes, is in this case eager to hand off operational responsibility, officials said.

Military action against pro-Qaddafi forces entered its seventh day on Friday with explosions around Tripoli overnight and French and British reports of strikes on ground forces in the east of the country.

Early on Friday, the United Arab Emirates said it would commit 12 aircraft — six F-16 and six Mirage warplanes — to join patrols enforcing the no-fly zone authorized a week ago by the United Nations Security Council, the official Emirates News Agency reported. It quoted the foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, as saying the deployment would begin “in the coming days.”

From the beginning of their efforts to build support against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, the Western allies have been anxious to secure Arab support — both politically and in practical commitments to what is depicted as a broad international alliance despite opposition from countries including China, Russia and Germany.

The United Arab Emirates and Qatar are the only members of the 22-nation Arab League that have committed planes to an active role in enforcing the no-fly zone. Qatar’s warplanes are expected to begin patrolling in the next few days, news reports said.

The Arab League offered diplomatic support before the Security Council voted to impose the no-fly zone a week ago. Since then, the United States has fired scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libyan air defense installations and other targets, while allied warplanes have flown sorties including some against ground forces said to be threatening civilians.

On Friday, British and French officials said their planes conducted assaults on loyalist forces around the beleaguered eastern city of Ajdabiya, which controls the approaches to the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi. Pro-Qaddafi units have been holding their easternmost line against rebels in Ajdabiya, thwarting any rebel advance to the west toward Tripoli, but rebel forces say they have been trying to negotiate the withdrawal or surrender of one loyalist unit in the strategic crossroads town.

Britain’s defense secretary, Liam Fox, said Friday that British Tornado warplanes launched missiles against loyalist armored vehicles, while France’s armed forces chief of staff, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, said a French warplane destroyed an artillery battery firing on Ajdabiya.

Britain’s defense secretary, Liam Fox, said Friday that British Tornado warplanes launched missiles against loyalist armored vehicles, while France’s armed forces chief of staff, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, said a French warplane destroyed an artillery battery firing on Ajdabiya.

As rebel fighters reportedly massed north of the city in preparation for another effort to punch through the Qaddafi tropps’ lines, Admiral Guillaud said French strikes had destroyed ammunition dumps, maintenance facilities and a command center.

Earlier reports said French planes had struck deep inside Libyan territory near the remote desert settlement of Sabha.

After a day of confusion and conflicting reports out of NATO headquarters in Brussels, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced late Thursday in Washington that NATO had agreed to lead the allies in maintaining the no-fly zone. Effectively, that means that planes from NATO countries will fly missions over Libya with little fear of being shot down since Tomahawk missiles, most of them American, largely destroyed Colonel Qaddafi’s air defenses and air force last weekend.

 Late Thursday night a senior Obama administration official insisted that NATO had agreed to assume responsibility for the no-fly and “no-drive” zones but said the details remained to be worked out. The official’s statements appeared to contradict those of the secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who had said in Brussels earlier that NATO was still considering whether to take on “broader responsibility” for the war. But. Mr. Rasmussen was talking only of what NATO had planned and approved — the no-fly zone — the officials said on Friday.

 The announcement of a handoff of responsibility to NATO came only five days after the conflict started and reflected the intense pressure on President Obama to deliver on his promise that the United States would step back “within days, not weeks” from command of the effort.

Mrs. Clinton, in her comments on Thursday night, said the United States was already cutting back its role. At the Pentagon, Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, the director of the joint staff, said that American fighter jets would continue bombing Libya and that American surveillance planes would provide reconnaissance even after NATO, in partnership with other coalition members, assumes leadership of the coalition. He also said the United States would provide airborne refueling tankers for coalition warplanes as well as other logistical support.

Admiral Gortney said the airstrikes were aimed at cutting off the communications and supply lines of the Libyan forces. The coalition was not bombing inside the cities to avoid inflicting civilian casualties, he said.

“Our message to regime troops is simple: stop fighting, stop killing your own people, stop obeying the orders of Colonel Qaddafi,” he said. “To the degree that you defy these demands, we will continue to hit you and make it more difficult for you to keep going.”

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