By ROBERT BURNS and ERICA WERNER
WASHINGTON — The United States welcomed a partial handover for the Libyan air campaign to NATO on Thursday, but the allies apparently balked at assuming full control and the U.S. military was left in charge of the brunt of combat.
NATO agreed to take over command of the newly established no-fly zone over Libya, protective flights meant to deter Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi from putting warplanes in the air. That leaves the U.S. with responsibility for attacks on Gadhafi’s ground forces and other targets, which are the toughest and most controversial portion of the operation.
The U.S had hoped the alliance would reach a consensus Thursday for NATO to take full control of the military operation authorized by the United Nations, including the protection of Libyan civilians and supporting humanitarian aid efforts on the ground. It was not immediately clear when the allies could reach agreement on the matter.
“We are taking the next step: We have agreed along with our NATO allies to transition command and control for the no-fly zone over Libya to NATO,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.
“All 28 allies have also now authorized military authorities to develop an operations plan for NATO to take on the broader civilian protection mission,” Clinton said.
Lines of authority were unclear Thursday night, but it appeared the NATO decision sets up dual command centers and opens the door to confusion and finger-pointing. U.S. commanders would presumably be chiefly responsible for ensuring that the NATO protective flights do not conflict with planned combat operations under U.S. command.
The Pentagon indicated U.S. warplanes will keep flying strike missions over Libya.
Senior administration officials said the breakthrough came in a four-way telephone call with Clinton and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Turkey. The four worked out the way forward, which included the immediate transfer of command and control of the no-fly zone over Libya, and by early next week of the rest of the U.N.-mandated mission.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military planning, said the actual handover of the no-fly zone would occur in one or two days. They said NATO would have a final operational plan by over the weekend for how it would assume control over the rest of the protection mission, and that it would be executable by Tuesday’s meeting in London of nations contributing to the military action.
The officials said the decision of which commanders control which areas was still being worked out.
NATO’s announcement came after nearly a week of U.S.-led air assaults, as the Obama administration pressed for a quick handoff. A series of disagreements, including questions of overall political control and how aggressive the mission should be, had held up the allies’ agreement.
The U.S. assumed command of the operation, which began on Saturday, largely because it alone possesses the military wherewithal to coordinate the complex array of movements, targeting and intelligence collection that was required to enable the establishment of a protective no-fly zone over Libya. Now that Gadhafi’s air force has been grounded and his air defenses largely silenced, the mission could be pursued under a different command such as NATO.
Clinton also praised the United Arab Emirates for becoming the second Arab country after Qatar to send planes to help the mission to protect Libyan civilians, enforce the U.N. arms embargo on the North African country and support humanitarian aid efforts. The U.A.E. will deploy 12 planes.
Clinton said she will travel to London next week to coordinate the strategy and military operation against Gadhafi’s regime.
With the costs of the campaign growing by the day and members of Congress raising complaints over the goals in Libya, the administration wants its allies to take the lead soon.
“We are still operating under that timeline, that it will be days, not weeks,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
At the Pentagon, Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney, staff director for the military Joint Chiefs, told reporters that the American role will mainly be in support missions such as refueling allied planes and providing aerial surveillance of Libya. But the U.S. will still fly combat missions as needed, Gortney said.
“And I would anticipate that we would continue to provide some of the interdiction strike packages as well, should that be needed by the coalition,” he added, referring to combat missions such as attacks on Libyan mobile air defenses, ammunition depots, air fields and other assets that support Libyan ground forces.
Carney was more circumspect, calling the next phase of U.S. involvement a “support and assist role,” using U.S. intelligence resources and military capabilities including electronic jamming to throw off missiles or rockets. He did not mention any combat airstrikes.
In a new development Thursday, one of the Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from ships in the Mediterranean struck a surface-to-air missile site near the city of Sabha, far inland at the southern tip of the allies’ designated no-fly zone, Gortney said. The missiles had previously struck mostly along the coastline. Another cruise missile hit a Scud missile site near Tripoli on Thursday, he said.
President Barack Obama spoke by phone with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, expressing his appreciation to the leader who has been criticized in Russia for not using the country’s veto in the United Nations Security Council to block the action in Libya.
Next week, Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen will brief members of the House on Libya. House Speaker John Boehner, who is pressing the administration to outline its goals in Libya, requested that they speak to lawmakers.
Speaking at the Pentagon, Gortney revealed how the coalition is shaping its strategy for using air power without hitting civilians, even as it pursues the U.N.-mandated goal of stopping Gadhafi from inflicting violence on his own people.
Gortney said that in contested cities like Misrata and Ajdabiya, the coalition is using air power to degrade or destroy the communications, logistics, ammunition storage and other supports for Gadhafi ground forces that are attacking inside the cities — apparently hoping that over time this will sap Gadhafi forces of their strength.
“But we are not attacking, we are not striking, inside the city,” he said.