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Allies Target Qaddafi Ground Forces, Debate Command Structure

The U.S.-led alliance is preparing to direct more attacks against leader Muammar Qaddafi’s ground forces as the U.S. and its partners try to resolve disputes over who will take over command.

The initial wave of allied airstrikes, concentrated on Libya’s air defenses, have not ended attacks on civilians by Qaddafi’s fighters, said U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear, the tactical commander for the allied attacks on Libya. The alliance now is “considering all options” for using air power to protect civilians in battleground cities of Misrata, Ajdabiya and Zawiyah, said Locklear, who spoke to reporters at the Pentagon via telephone from his command ship in the Mediterranean Sea.

In Brussels, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization held a second day of inconclusive talks about whether it or some ad-hoc grouping will take command of military operation initially headed by the U.S. There are division within NATO and also a need to include Arab participants in the leadership. President Barack Obama spoke with both U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday to try to resolve the issues, according to statements from their offices.

“This command-and-control business is complicated, and we haven’t done something like this kind of on-the-fly before,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Moscow yesterday. “It’s not surprising to me that it would take a few days to get it all sorted out.”

Oil, Turmoil

The Libya conflict, which began in February in the eastern city of Benghazi, is the bloodiest in a series of uprisings that have spread across the Middle East and ousted the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. Elsewhere, Yemen’s U.S.-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for three decades, signaled he may yield to public demands he quit, but not immediately as his opponents demand. Bahrain, where the Sunni Muslim monarchy brought in Saudi Arabian security forces to crush Shiite protests, may face a further cut in its credit rating because of the implications of political unrest for its economic growth, Standard & Poor’s said.

Amid regional turmoil, oil traded near the highest price in more than a week. Crude oil for April delivery increased $1.55, or 1.5 percent, to $103.88 a barrel at 12:38 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. April futures expired yesterday. The more active May oil contract advanced $1.33, or 1.3 percent, to $104.42.

Opening Salvo

The overall intensity of the military campaign, which began March 19 with volleys of U.S. and U.K. Tomahawk cruise missiles followed by U.S. B-2 bombings, will ease with the establishment of the no-fly zone, Gates said at a press conference in Moscow yesterday.

The U.S. and allies through yesterday fired 162 Raytheon Co. (RTN) Tomahawks that hit 108 targets, according to an e-mail from Navy Capt. Darryn James, a Pentagon spokesman. The U.S. has flown 212 aircraft sorties and the coalition 124, James said.

Obama, concluding his Latin America trip in El Salvador, said military action averted a “catastrophe” had Qaddafi attacked Benghazi, the rebel capital.

The Libyan ruler, speaking from his compound in Tripoli, denounced the U.S.-led airstrikes and declared “I am here, I am standing fast,” according to Al-Arabiya television.

While the UN-authorized no-fly zone has destroyed or grounded the Libyan air force, Qaddafi’s ground forces continue to violate Security Council Resolution 1973 by keeping up attacks on civilians in Misrata, the largest city in western Libya; Ajdabiya, the gateway to Benghazi, the country’s second- largest city; and Zawiyah, near Tripoli, said Locklear.

‘All Actions Necessary’

“We’re going to continue to pursue all actions necessary to make him comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1973,” Locklear said.

His remarks suggest that alliance warplanes may shift to hitting Libyan tanks and rocket launchers, which are being used against rebels in population centers. He also said his forces are “watching” Qaddafi’s two key military units — the 32nd Brigade, which has been commanded by Qaddafi’s youngest son, Khamis, and the 9th Security Regiment. They are tank-equipped regime-protection units, according to information provided by the Pentagon.

Libyan deputy foreign ministers asked yesterday for Libyan tribes’ help to start a dialogue with the opposition, Al-Arabiya news channel reported. The Security Council resolution calls for an immediate cease-fire, which the Qaddafi regime has not respected despite several claims that it was instituting a halt to the fighting.

NATO Debates

The question of who assumes military leadership in a U.S. handoff was unresolved in a second day of talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels and in telephone calls among key leaders.

Thirteen nations are participating in the coalition, according to Locklear, who said that Qatar is moving aircraft to be able to join the military operation by the weekend. It would be the first Arab participant, and the Associated Press reported that Qatar was deploying two Mirage jets to a U.S. base on the Greek island of Crete. The United Arab Emirates refused to take part because of anger that its U.S. and European allies failed to take a stronger stand against what the U.A.E. sees as Iranian involvement in Bahrain protests, the former head of the country’s air force, Major General Khaled Bu-Ainnain, said in an interview yesterday.

Norway and Italy said their participation in air operations depends on settling who will be in command. Germany, which opposed military action against Libya, pulled its forces in the Mediterranean from NATO and put them under exclusively German command, the German news agency DPA reported yesterday.

French Proposal

France proposed that a new political steering committee, outside NATO, take responsibility, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told lawmakers in Paris, according to Agence France-Presse. Speaking in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, Obama said he has “absolutely no doubt” that the U.S. will be able to transfer control to an international coalition.

The likely outcome will be a hybrid arrangement in which NATO has command-and-control responsibilities, overseen by a political steering committee including representatives from all nations participating in Operation Odyssey Dawn, according to a Western diplomat at the United Nations. Jordan and Kuwait are expected to be the next Arab nations to join the alliance, he said. Turkey, a majority-Muslim nation that is a NATO member, may work with the rebel council in Benghazi on delivering humanitarian aid, he said.

War Costs

The U.S. is also talking with Saudi Arabia about how it might contribute to the Libya actions, according to an administration official, who was authorized to brief reporters on terms that didn’t allow his name to be used.

The cost of initial U.S. strikes against Libyan air defenses exceeds $168 million, including the use of Raytheon Co. Tomahawk cruise missiles and Northrop Grumman Co. long-range B-2 bombers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told lawmakers in London yesterday that the cost of U.K. operations in Libya are likely to run into “tens of millions of pounds” and that it will be met by the Treasury’s reserve fund, not the Ministry of Defense’s budget.

Air strikes enabled rebel forces to push out from their eastern stronghold of Benghazi toward Ajdabiya as the United States Africa Command reported that an F-15E jet crashed because of technical difficulties and two crew members were recovered.

City Attacked

In Misrata, Qaddafi’s forces shelled the main electricity station, cutting off power from most parts of the city, Mohamed al-Misrati, a resident who witnessed the attack, said by satellite phone from the city. Dozens of people were killed and more than 150 others wounded in the ongoing attack, which involved tanks shelling residential areas, al-Misrati said yesterday. There are no reliable estimates of the number of casualties from the weeks of fighting.

Attacks late March 21 targeted early warning radars, communication centers and surface-to-air missile sites in and around Tripoli and Misrata, aircraft hangars at the Ghardabiya airfield, and an armored convoy south of Benghazi. The coalition struck a command-and-control facility in a Qaddafi compound in Tripoli, Army General Carter Ham, the top U.S. commander for combat operations against Libya, said March 21.

The coalition flew between 70 and 80 sorties March 21, with France, Spain, Italy, Denmark and the U.K. enforcing the no-fly zone over Benghazi and coalition vessels patrolling the coast, Ham said. Both Italy and France deployed aircraft carriers.

Libyan Claims

“Many civilians were killed last night because many of the targets last night were civilian and quasi-military places,” Moussa Ibrahim, a Libyan government spokesman, said in an interview with Sky News.

China yesterday called for an immediate cease-fire in the North African country. The United Nations resolution authorizing the military action was meant to “protect the safety of civilians,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a briefing in Beijing yesterday.

“The military actions taken by relevant countries are causing civilian casualties,” Jiang said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on March 21 described the allied offensive as a “crusade,” which his spokesman later described as his personal opinion.