A rebel makes the victory sign from a truck fitted with an anti-aircraft gun.
associated press Enlarge
WASHINGTON — Two weeks after a barrage of mostly U.S. missiles and bombs opened the international air assault on Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, the American combat role is ending, the rebels are reeling, and the Pentagon is betting European allies can finish the job.
Gadhafi is standing, with a few uncertain signs that his inner circle could crack.
The Obama Administration is hoping that if Gadhafi's government doesn't implode soon, a relentless campaign of airstrikes on his tanks, air defenses, and his most trusted army units at least will weaken his ability to survive a renewed uprising by a disjointed opposition.
The rebels initially rattled Gadhafi but in recent days have given up most of their gains.
The bottom line, according to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "He's still killing his people."
So the mission remains incomplete, but the United States is following through on a pledge to shift the main combat burden to Britain, France, and other NATO allies.
Starting today, no U.S. combat aircraft are to fly strike missions in Libya. NATO's on-scene commander can request U.S. strikes, in which case they may have to be approved in Washington.
U.S. combat aircraft flew 24 strike missions Saturday in Libya, the Pentagon said.
Also withdrawing from the combat mission today will be the initial workhorses of the military campaign: U.S. Navy destroyers and submarines that launched Tomahawk cruise missiles from positions in the Mediterranean Sea.
No Tomahawks were fired Saturday, the Pentagon said.
Meanwhile, a NATO-led airstrike killed 13 Libyan rebels and wounded seven Friday night. Rebel leaders called for continued raids on Gadhafi's forces despite the "regrettable incident."
The fighters died in an increasingly chaotic battle over the oil town of Brega with Gadhafi's troops, who have reversed a rebel advance on the coastal road linking their eastern stronghold with western Libya.
Most rebels blamed a Gadhafi agent for drawing the "friendly fire."
"Some of Gadhafi's forces sneaked in among the rebels and fired anti-aircraft guns in the air," rebel fighter Mustafa Ali Omar said. "After that, the NATO forces came and bombed them."
But some gave a different account. "The rebels shot up in the air and the alliance came and bombed them. We are the ones who made the mistake," a fighter who did not give his name said.
With the shift of the U.S. military's role, U.S. planes and naval vessels will be on standby in case NATO commanders decide their forces cannot handle the mission alone.
Combat air missions will continue to be flown by Britain, France, and other NATO member countries.
A larger group of participating air forces will patrol over Libya to ensure Gadhafi's air force stays grounded. U.S. planes will support them with refueling aircraft and electronic jammers.
The Navy began the operation March 19 with 11 ships in the Mediterranean. As of Friday, nine remained.
The international military mission has been limited from the start, with the stated objective of protecting Libyan civilians from attack.
But until this weekend's U.S. stand-down, Air Force and Marine attack planes have chased down Libyan tanks and other targets daily.
Still to be decided is whether the White House will up the ante and provide arms to the rebels. That step, some congressional supporters of the Libya mission say, is crucial to ensuring the strategic goal of ousting Gadhafi is achieved before he kills still more opponents.
"We are concerned that regional support will waver if Western forces are perceived as presiding over a military deadlock," Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.) wrote Friday in the Wall Street Journal.
"We cannot allow Gadhafi to consolidate his grip over part of the country and settle in for the long haul."
They called for a "more robust and coherent package of aid" to the rebels, who are armed mainly with light weapons.
In an indication Gadhafi's resilience may be eroding, his government is trying to hold talks with the United States, Britain, and France in hopes of ending the air campaign, said Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, a former Libyan prime minister who has served as a Gadhafi envoy during the crisis.
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