U.S. Says Libyan Campaign to Ease as No-Fly Zone Secured

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the intensity of the military campaign in Libya will ease soon after allied forces imposed a no-fly zone on Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, enabling rebels to push out of their eastern Benghazi stronghold.

The fighting “should recede in the next few days,” Gates said at a press conference in Moscow today. Opposition fighters advanced on the central gateway city of Ajdabiya, which is held by loyalist troops, according to the Associated Press. Qaddafi’s army units continued to shell the western, rebel-held city of Misrata for a second day, residents said.

The conflict, which began in February in Benghazi, is the bloodiest in a series of uprisings that have spread across the Middle East this year and ousted the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. 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 and Zawiyah, near Tripoli, said U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear, the operational commander for the allied attacks on Libya.

The coalition is “considering all options” to make Qaddafi comply, said Locklear, who spoke to reporters at the Pentagon via telephone from his command ship in the Mediterranean.

Oil Markets

Oil traded near the highest price in more than a week as the airstrikes threatened to prolong a supply disruption. 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 expire today. The more-active May oil contract advanced $1.33, or 1.3 percent, to $104.42.

Libyan rebels in Benghazi said they have created a new national oil company to replace the corporation controlled by Qaddafi. Its assets were frozen by the United Nations Security Council. Libya has the largest oil reserves of any country in Africa, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Thirteen nations are now participating, according to Locklear. Qatar is moving aircraft to be able to join the military operation by weekend, he said. It would be the first Arab participant, and AP reported Qatar was deploying two Mirage jets and a cargo aircraft to a U.S. base on Crete.

NATO Discord

The question of who assumes leadership in a U.S. handoff was unresolved, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization inconclusively discussed whether to take charge. Norway and Italy said their participation in air operations depends on settling who will be in command.

France proposed a new political steering committee, outside NATO, take responsibility, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told lawmakers in Paris, according to Agence France Press. Wrangling over the alliance’s possible role in the four-day-old air campaign had exposed divisions over the command structure and strategy for the fight against Qaddafi.

President Barack Obama, speaking in Santiago, Chile, yesterday said the U.S. would hand off its leadership role “in a matter of days, not a matter of weeks.”

“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 today. “It’s not surprising to me that it would take a few days to get it all sorted out.”

War Costs

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 today 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.

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 on the city, which involved tanks shelling residential areas, al-Misrati said today. There are no reliable estimates of the number of casualties from the weeks of fighting.

Air Targets

Attacks late yesterday 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, General Carter Ham, the U.S. commander for combat operations against Libya, said yesterday.

The coalition flew between 70 and 80 sorties yesterday, with more than half conducted by non-U.S. aircraft, Ham said. France, Spain, Italy, Denmark and the U.K. enforced the no-fly zone over Benghazi and coalition vessels patrolled the coast, he said. Both Italy and France deployed aircraft carriers.

“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. “The British government is killing more civilians to save civilians. This is absurd.”

Qaddafi’s Fate

Obama and other alliance leaders, including U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have declared that their political objective is to force Qaddafi from power after more than four decades. Ham said it is “possible” the Libyan dictator would remain in power for some time.

China today 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 today.

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

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