The Obama administration will transfer the lead role in enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but the deal exposed sharp divisions in NATO and means U.S. warplanes will continue flying combat missions against Libyan ground forces, officials said.
U.S. and NATO officials said the Brussels-based alliance had agreed to take command of the no-fly zone in coming days to prevent Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s air force from attacking rebels who have been battling his government for five weeks.
But after four days of wrangling, NATO ambassadors could not agree on whether to also put the alliance in charge of airstrikes targeting Kadafi’s tanks and other ground forces to prevent them from seizing cities held by rebel forces. Warplanes from the U.S. and coalition allies, including France and Britain, will continue those attacks.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general, said in Brussels that organization officials “are considering whether NATO should take on the broader responsibility. But that decision has not been made yet.
“At this moment, there will still be a coalition operation and a NATO operation,” he said.
The White House said the arrangement was consistent with President Obama’s pledge after the first strikes Saturday to hand over command of the military operation in “days, not weeks.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday in Washington, “We have agreed, along with our NATO allies, to transition command-and-control for the no-fly zone to NATO.”
U.S. officials said NATO could agree in a few days to put the full military operation, including airstrikes, under the organization’s command.
NATO’s reluctance so far to take on that role raises questions about the international commitment to an intervention that may have prevented widespread killing of civilians but has not forced Kadafi to retreat.
The partial hand-off also did little to appease congressional critics of the U.S. intervention.
“It certainly appears they’re making this up as they go along,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). “What really irks to a lot of us is the president sought authorization from the U.N. and not the Congress.”
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), a leading antiwar lawmaker, said putting NATO in the lead was nothing but a “shell game.”
“It’s still the United States moving this with money, materiel, with missions, and the question is how many troops are involved?” asked Kucinich, who has three co-sponsors for his resolution to defund the Libya action. He said Congress needed “a broader discussion.”
Leaders of both parties who were briefed by the White House before the airstrikes began gave their support in large part on the promise of a limited role for the U.S. military.
“If this goes well, if Kadafi steps down in the next week, it’ll all go away,” said Scott Payne, a national security policy analyst at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “If this starts to stretch into weeks, [the White House is] going to have to make a much more public effort to say what’s going on.”
With Congress out of session, lawmakers have been able to make criticisms without putting their names to a vote, allowing them to adjust to the changing military environment. That may change when Congress returns Monday.
Committees in both the House and Senate will hold hearings next week, with Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael G. Mullen and National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper scheduled to provide a classified briefing.
U.S. military officers said that if the air campaign is limited to patrolling the no-fly zone, Kadafi’s ground forces would be free to continue assaults against rebel-held areas. Those attacks have intensified even with the coalition airstrikes, officers said.
For the moment, there probably will be little change in the scope of the military campaign.
Diplomats said the foreign ministers of France, Britain and Turkey agreed with Clinton in a teleconference call Thursday that NATO would assume all responsibilities that the coalition forces are now carrying out. This agreement was spelled out in a document sent to all four capitals, a diplomat said, leaving no doubt about the details.
But later in the afternoon, Turkey’s mission to NATO changed its mind. So did Lithuania.
In discussions at NATO, Turkey has reportedly called for ending airstrikes against Libyan ground units.
One Western diplomat said NATO might still overcome its divisions. He noted that NATO members had agreed to assign military planners to figure out how to carry out all the coalition’s current responsibilities; a good sign, he said.
Pentagon officials said the details of the new two-part command structure were still being worked out, even as NATO governments were announcing that they had broad agreement.
“This is a complicated process and, to some degree, it’s being done on the fly,” Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, the director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, said at a news briefing.
Once command is handed over to NATO, U.S. warplanes would continue to fly combat sorties for at least a few days before beginning to phase out that role, Gortney said, without offering a timetable. U.S. aircraft would continue in a support role, providing aerial refueling, surveillance and other functions in which the U.S. has more capabilities than its allies.
“I would see it being phased over time,” Gortney said, referring to the planned reduction in U.S. combat sorties.
“We are transitioning very soon, like within a few days, to support and assist,” said a senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Still uncertain is whether tighter restrictions will be imposed on allied airstrikes against Libyan army units once the U.S. turns over full command.
Under the existing rules of engagement, U.S. and allied planes are patrolling a no-fly zone to keep Libyan aircraft on the ground and to carry out attacks on Libyan ground forces, ammo dumps, missile sites and headquarters facilities.
Gortney said Thursday that to avoid causing civilian casualties, no airstrikes are being launched on Misurata, Zintan and other rebel-held cities that have come under attack from Kadafi’s forces.
Times staff writers Christi Parsons in Washington and Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.