Khadafy is not target, US says

By Robert Burns
Associated Press / March 22, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The opening phase of US and coalition military action in Libya bruised Moammar Khadafy’s ground forces and set the stage for extending a no-fly zone across the country, but American officials made clear yesterday their goals stop short of targeting Khadafy or directly assisting rebel forces.

Army General Carter Ham, the lead US commander, said it was possible that Khadafy might manage to retain power. “I don’t think anyone would say that is ideal,’’ the general said, foreseeing a possible outcome that stands in contrast to President Obama’s declaration that Khadafy must go.

The Libyan leader has ruled the North African nation for 42 years and was a target of American air attacks in 1986.

The full dimensions of the Libya crisis are still coming into view, with questions remaining about how far the Obama administration is willing to go to stop Khadafy, whether the international military coalition will hold together, and whether dissent in Khadafy’s own ranks will soon doom him.

Traveling in Chile, Obama said removing Khadafy is not the military’s mission. A combination of other measures, including United Nations sanctions designed to isolate the Libyan leader, are the correct approach to hastening his fall, Obama said, adding that the UN Security Council resolution authorizing military action did not sanction regime change.

The president has little choice if he wants to hold Arab and other backing and hand off front-line responsibility for a no-fly zone to European or other allied forces in the coming days.

In Russia for an awkwardly timed visit on other topics, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it is a mistake to set Khadafy’s ouster as a military goal.

“I think it’s pretty clear to everybody that Libya would be better off without Khadafy,’’ he said in an interview with Interfax news agency. “That is a matter for the Libyans themselves to decide.’’

Gates, speaking in St. Petersburg, said the US military’s role would soon shrink.

“I expect us very soon to recede back into a supporting role with other nations carrying a significant proportion of the burden in implementing and enforcing the no-fly zone,’’ the Pentagon chief said. “And the president has made very clear the United States will not put any forces in Libya, on Libyan soil.’’

The direction of the international military campaign is now shifting from crippling Libya’s air defenses and halting a Libyan attack on the rebel stronghold in Benghazi to expanding the no-fly zone and setting the stage for a flow of humanitarian supplies to displaced Libyans.

The air campaign began Saturday with a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missile attacks by US and British vessels in the Mediterranean.

Attacks continued last night, but on a far smaller scale, Ham and others said. The general made clear that his intention was to stick closely to the limitations of the Security Council mandate, which set the primary goal of protecting civilians from attacks by the Libyan military.

Thus, if Khadafy forces back away from rebel-held areas and do not demonstrate hostile intent or movement, they will be spared. “There is no intent to completely destroy the Libyan military forces,’’ Ham said.

A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified data, said the attacks thus far had reduced Khadafy’s air defense capabilities by more than 50 percent. That has enabled the coalition to focus more on extending the no-fly zone, which is now mainly over the coastal waters off Libya and around the city of Benghazi in the east, across the country to the Tripoli area this week. top stories on Twitter

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