French jets enforce no-fly zone as America plays down its role

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The Independent Online

The Americans were spearheading military operations against the Gaddafi regime in Libya yesterday, despite days of insisting they were playing a support role.



Both Britain and the US said weekend operations had been successful, knocking out air defences, radars and crippling the Gaddafi regime's air force. They said, however, that it was too early to speculate how the operation might end. The US administration had been at pains to remain in the background, with France appearing the most hawkish in calls for the establishment of a no-fly zone, and sending in the first wave of jets on Saturday. But America took the lead during the weekend as a second wave of bombings started last night.

Command of Operation Odyssey Dawn has been handed to General Carter F Ham, head of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in Germany. In the area, Admiral Sam Locklear is the Joint Task Force Commander on USS Mount Whitney. While British officers have been co-ordinating with the US leaders from their headquarters in Northwood, north-west London, the Americans' vast maritime and air firepower has put them at the forefront in implementing UN Security Council resolution 1973.

But last night the US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he expected the US to hand over command of the mission to a coalition – probably headed by the UK, France or Nato – within "a matter of days".

Mr Gates told reporters that President Barack Obama felt strongly about limiting the US role in operations, adding: "We will continue to support the coalition, we will be a member of the coalition, we will have a military role in the coalition, but we will not have the pre-eminent role."

Nato's governing North Atlantic Council was meeting in Brussels yesterday to consider whether to take on a formal command role, a matter complicated by the fact that nations such as Germany are not taking part in the attacks. There are also misgivings Nato control might discourage Arab involvement. The UK's Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, said: "I think it is very important for opinion in the Arab world to show that this is not simply the West acting, but this is the international coalition acting." Mr Fox also suggested that Gaddafi himself was a legitimate target, so long as steps were taken to avoid harm to civilians around him.

While both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were preparing to send in planes last night, the coalition was already looking shaky as the Arab League, which called for a no-fly zone, complained about the strikes. Secretary-General Amr Moussa said: "What we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians."

Yesterday, British Typhoon jets left RAF Coningsby in Lincoln for southern Italy. The jets, which will be joined by Tornados, are standing by at the Gioia del Colle air base to hit Libyan targets and patrol the no-fly zone. A British Trafalgar-class submarine remained off the coast of Libya.

Meanwhile France's aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle left Toulon en route to Libya as 15 French jets flew over the country but met no resistance. Both military and government figures played down suggestions airstrikes could be followed by a ground invasion.

While UN Resolution 1973 prohibits occupying forces, experts said this would not preclude the temporary use of land forces.

In a 3,000-mile, eight-hour venture, Tornados from RAF Marham took on their longest mission since the Falklands conflict, striking at targets in Libya before returning home. The complex operation required four air-to-air refuellings. The two frigates HMS Westminster and HMS Cumberland remain off the coast, preparing to take part in a naval blockade.

Earlier on Saturday, French Mirage and Rafale jets fired at tanks and armoured vehicles near the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. At a briefing in London, senior RAF and Royal Navy commanders insisted both the Tomahawk and the Tornados' Storm Shadow cruise missiles were precision weapons that could target within "one metre or two", after claims 48 people had been killed and 150 wounded.

"We are heavily aware of the risks with operations such as last night's," said Air Vice-Marshal Phil Osborn, air officer commanding No2 Group (Air Combat Support Group). "The risk of collateral damage is always at the forefront of our minds. We would not prosecute targets if there was a risk."

What happens next?

Scenario 1: Gaddafi is driven swiftly from power

The most optimistic members of the coalition will be hoping that Colonel Gaddafi's support is more motivated by fear than loyalty and likely to evaporate in the face of any sustained assault. Under this scenario the pro-Gaddafi forces will melt away under aerial attack, leaving the rebels with little opposition barring the way to Tripoli – and the dictator isolated, or gone, when they get there. The swift emergence of a credible interim leadership would be the best possible result for the UN.

Scenario 2: The loyalists retreat but the regime stays

If Gaddafi's forces are so damaged that any serious new assault on rebel cities appears impossible, an uneasy peace may settle. With the UN resolution limited to demanding that the regime ends assaults on its own citizens, support for a more prolonged campaign could fade away. If so, a weakened Gaddafi could cling to power in the short term. But if he were removed in a palace coup, there is no certainty the replacements would be any more democratic.

Scenario 3: Uneasy peace as the country splits in two

If Gaddafi can retain the support of key members of the regime in Tripoli and develop a permanent hold on Libya's oil, defeat in the east would not necessarily mean the end of his leadership. He could keep the UN at bay by refraining from any further attacks in the east, letting the rebels establish a more permanent power base in Benghazi. But the uprising is not regional and a split nation is unlikely to satisfy the rebels. Given time to consolidate they could push west once more.

Scenario 4: Appetite for conflict fades in the West

Despite his military limitations, Gaddafi will hope to make the conflict seem likely to be long, bloody and fruitless. The regime has already claimed the UN strikes have hit hospitals and civilians – and large parts of the country receive only state media. If there are real humanitarian consequences, the Western public – fatigued by years of war – could turn against the campaign. If so it is possible that domestic political concerns could force the alliance to seek a fast exit.

Scenario 5: Attacks on Europe leave Gaddafi on top

Gaddafi does not seem to have the resources to make good on his threat to unleash revenge attacks across the Mediterranean. But given his history, there is little question that he is willing to do so. If an increased threat to European civilians is matched by a drawn-out and bloody military campaign, the UN will be faced with two unpalatable options: put troops on the ground, or accept that Gaddafi can do as he pleases. But with the Libyan military so weak, this is by some distance the less likely possibility.

GENERAL CARTER F. HAM: THE MAN CALLING THE SHOTS

* Upon taking control of US Africa Command less than two weeks ago, General Carter F Ham predicted "many challenges" ahead. The General's 35-year career has included command of troops in Iraq, advising the Saudi Arabian National Guard, and reviewing the military's policy on homosexuality.

The soldier has been praised as a charismatic, humble leader with a calm demeanour, keen analytical ability and thoughtful, balanced approach.

Last year, he was selected for his "experience and wisdom" as one of two generals charged with conducting a comprehensive review to prepare for the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law relating to homosexuals. It concluded that sexual orientation should not be a factor in recruiting, promotion or any personnel decision-making.

After a year commanding troops in Mosul, northern Iraq, in 2004, he was the highest-ranking officer to talk publicly of his own anxiety and difficulties upon returning. The weight of command, ordering people into harm's way, knowing they would die month after month, had taken its toll, he explained. Referring to the day a suicide bomber blew up a mess tent, killing 22, he said: "That was the worst day of my life, hands down."

What's in a name

Naming a military campaign can be fraught with difficulties. President George W Bush faced scorn over Operation Infinite Justice, the initial name for the military action into Afghanistan in 2001. Muslim groups protested on the grounds that their faith teaches that only Allah can provide infinite justice. Hence nearly a decade later, US and other Nato troops are still fighting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

* Military officials displayed a little more caution before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with the less imaginative title of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

* The thinking behind the name Odyssey Dawn has not yet been revealed, but it has already been lampooned, with James Wolcott writing in Vanity Fair that the name reminded him of a Seventies porn star

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