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U.S. launches airstrike campaign against Islamic State in Libya

Forces loyal to Libya's U.N.-backed unity government sit on the back of an armored vehicle at the entrance to Surt as they advance to recapture the city from the Islamic State group jihadists on June 10.
(Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. attack jets and drones launched airstrikes inside Libya on Monday against multiple Islamic State targets, marking a further expansion of President Obama’s war against the militant group.

The warplanes targeted Islamic State transport vehicles and tanks that had been menacing Libyan forces inside the densely populated city of Surt, along the central Mediterranean coast where the Sunni extremist group has built a stronghold.

The strikes, the start of an ongoing campaign, will give the U.S. military a more prominent role in war-torn Libya and open a new front less than six months before Obama leaves office.

The expanded air campaign in Libya, where Islamic State has established its largest and most powerful affiliate outside Syria and Iraq, is open-ended but strictly limited to the city of Surt, U.S. officials said.

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In recent weeks, militants’ fortifications around Surt have been besieged in fighting, with pressure coming from both sides of the city by rival militias.

The decision to launch additional strikes was authorized by Obama after a request from the newly formed Western-backed unity government, known as Libyan Government of National Accord and headed by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj.

“We hope these airstrikes can be conducted over a short amount of time and that [Libyan] forces will be able to move even faster in terms of removing ISIL from that area,” said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Serraj issued a televised address Monday that outlined his country’s appreciation for American air power in the ongoing fight against Islamic State, but he also warned against further, uninvited involvement.

“We repeat from here our rejection of interference by any nation or attempts to violate Libya’s sovereignty,” he said.

Under a campaign dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning, the U.S. military will launch strikes against specific targets upon request from the Libyan government. Each strike must be approved by Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, which oversees military operations on the continent.

The U.S. Navy has positioned the amphibious assault ship Wasp about 20 miles off the coast of Surt to assist in the operation.

The Libyan government will be “determining the pace and the success of this campaign,” Cook said. “Obviously they have their forces on the ground conducting their efforts and this will be in support of their efforts…. But we aim to support them as best we can, carefully assessing the circumstances and the targets.”

Islamic State snipers and fighters are currently holed up in government and university buildings inside Surt’s city center. Pentagon officials believe there are fewer than 1,000 Islamic State fighters inside the city.

That appears to be fewer militants than was suggested last year by social media images of balaclava-clad gunmen in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns, marauding through the city and waving black flags.

Obama made no mention of the new U.S. military engagement during a speech to a disabled veterans convention in Atlanta. But he vowed in his remarks that the United States “will keep pounding ISIL and taking out their leaders and pushing them back on the ground.”

“United with a global coalition, we will destroy this barbaric terrorist group. They will be destroyed,” he said.

The president will travel to the Pentagon on Thursday as part of a regular series of administration-wide briefings on the U.S. strategy to counter Islamic State.

The militant group seized on Libya’s political instability in late 2014 by attacking oil fields and installations, hobbling a major source of income for the fledgling government. Oil production has been cut in half from a year ago, according to state-run National Oil Corp.

Last year, U.S. officials were concerned that Islamic State was quietly taking root in Libya much as it did in Syria before the militants’ blitz across Iraq in early 2014, when it seized cities, oil fields, military bases and banks. They attracted hundreds of recruits from elsewhere in Africa, raising fears that they would use Libya to launch terrorist attacks in Europe and Africa.

The Pentagon sent special operations teams and reconnaissance drones to gather intelligence and has launched two previous airstrikes. But the White House was reluctant to escalate a U.S. military role in another Muslim country without the government’s consent.

Libya is now the fourth country -- including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria -- in which the U.S. military is targeting Islamic State militants from the air in support of foreign ground forces.

Since the fall of Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi in 2011, the only known U.S. airstrikes were in November, when F-15 fighter jets killed a senior Islamic State commander known as Abu Nabil near the eastern city of Derna, and in February, when the U.S. launched strikes on a training camp in Sabratha, targeting a Tunisia-born militant leader.

“The fact that the Americans have decided to intervene is important and a step in the right direction – but it’s a small step,” said Karim Mezran, a Libya scholar at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “It might be the deciding factor in the battle for Surt, but bigger challenges lie ahead for Libya’s government, which remains in troubled waters.”

The oil-rich country has faced political chaos and violence since the NATO bombing campaign helped rebels oust and kill Kadafi. It remains beset by armed militias, as well as Islamic State, and until recently had two rival governments battling for control in a low-grade civil war.

Serraj has yet to make peace with the two rival governments that control substantial parts of Libya.

The most powerful force since 2014 has been the General National Congress, which includes numerous militias. It opposes the harsh ideology of Islamic State, but also opposes Serraj’s efforts to unite Libya under his authority.

Another powerful group, the self-declared National Salvation Government, is based in Tobruk and includes members of the House of Representatives. Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who controls that faction, has signaled through proxies that he is not in favor of outside nations meddling in Libyan affairs.

Adding to the challenge, Egypt and Russia have indicated that they will not support arming new government forces until the parliament in Tobruk is brought back to Tripoli as the national legislative body.

The U.S. and 22 other nations agreed to support the formation of a unity government in Tripoli, the capital, in a tenuous effort to restore stability and take on the militants.

Staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this story.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

Twitter: @wjhenn

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UPDATES:

2:15 p.m.: This story was updated with additional background and reaction.

This story was originally published at 8:30 a.m.


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