After days of hard bargaining among its members, NATO agreed late Thursday to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, but not other military operations there.
The agreement, announced in Brussels by the alliance's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, will allow the U.S. to hand over command and control of part of the international operation, as it has been eager to do. But it appeared that some NATO members balked at supervising attacks on targets on the ground.
Fogh Rasmussen said the NATO operation would proceed in parallel with the bombing campaign carried out by coalition aircraft.
"At this moment there will still be a coalition operation and a NATO operation," Fogh Rasmussen said. "But we are considering whether NATO should take on that broader responsibility in accordance with the U.N. Security Council resolution, but that decision has not been made yet."
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State of Hillary Clinton welcomed NATO's announcement. She also praised the United Arab Emirates for becoming the second Arab country after Qatar to send planes to help the mission. The Emirates will deploy 12 planes.
"NATO is well suited to coordinating this international effort and ensuring that all participating nations are working effectively together toward our shared goals," Clinton said. "This coalition includes countries beyond NATO, including Arab partners, and we expect all of them to be providing important political guidance going forward."
Earlier Thursday, Navy Adm. William Gortney said the U.S. probably will continue flying combat missions once it relinquishes command of the air campaign, a move that could happen as early as this weekend.
He said the U.S. role predominantly would be in support of allied partners, with refueling missions, surveillance, reconnaissance and other noncombat flights. He also said that he expects U.S. planes would continue flying some strike missions.
Gortney said details of the transfer to NATO are being worked out.
With the handover of control, the 28-member alliance would be in charge of enforcing the no-fly zone and a naval blockade off Libya's coast aimed at interdicting arms and mercenaries that might be used to bolster Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the arms embargo and no-fly zone last week to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi's forces attacked anti-government protesters seeking his ouster after nearly 42 years in power.
An international coalition comprising the U.S., Britain, France and other nations launched an air and missile campaign on Saturday to enforce the air quarantine. But it has also targeted Gadhafi's ground forces and military installations.
From the beginning though, the U.S. has been keen to hand over control of the operation to NATO, a move that first had to surmount internal discord. NATO member Turkey, which sees itself as a bridge between Europe and the Muslim world, had expressed reservations about the military intervention in Libya and sought assurances that it would not go beyond the goal of protecting civilians.
In addition to Turkey's concerns, France expressed reluctance to relinquish its key role and Germany objected to the entire premise of the operation.
In a statement earlier Thursday possibly aimed at mollifying Turkish objections, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the use of force made sense only if it was backed by a political plan.
"That plan will permit the Libyan people to come together and talk and build a different future together," Longuet said, speaking at his first news conference since the military intervention began.
Even so, Longuet emphasized that Libyan command centers that give orders to hurt civilians would be considered legitimate targets for coalition airstrikes.
Longuet's comments followed a night where French jets apparently took the lead over Libya, hitting an air base in the heart of the country and destroying a Libyan plane.
French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said strikes overnight hit a base about 155 miles south of the Libyan coast, but did not elaborate on the target or any damage. Burkhard also declined to comment on the reports about the downed aircraft.
But a U.S. official said a French Rafale fighter destroyed what was identified as a Libyan G-2/Galeb, a two-seat military training jet, that had landed at a base near the coastal city of Misurata.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Libyan plane may have been landing at the time of the attack but cautioned that details were still being confirmed.
On Wednesday, NATO warships began patrolling off Libya's Mediterranean coast in an effort described by Italy's Vice Admiral Rinaldo Veri as "closing the main front door" to weapons and mercenaries for the Libyan leader.
Rinaldo, the commander of the seven-nation NATO blockade, said Thursday that his task force was in the "build-up phase" and would soon be monitoring, reporting and possibly interdicting "vessels suspected of carrying illegal arms or mercenaries."
He said the armada comprised surface ships, submarines and maritime patrol aircraft.
"If they should find resistance, the use of force is necessary," Rinaldo said, noting that the Security Council had mandated all means necessary to enforce the embargo.
Explosions Rattle Tripoli
U.S. and British ships in the Mediterranean fired more than a dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles late Wednesday and early Thursday. The targets included Gadhafi's air defense missile sites in Tripoli and south of the capital. Other strikes were launched against an ammunition bunker near Misurata and forces south of Benghazi, the official said.
NPR's David Greene reported that the capital reverberated with the sound of explosions and anti-aircraft fire." This night might have been the loudest yet. ... The explosions continued straight through sunrise," he said.
State television showed footage of blackened and mangled bodies Thursday that it said were victims of the airstrikes in Tripoli. Rebels have accused Gadhafi's forces of taking bodies from the morgue and presenting them as civilian casualties.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said the "military compound at Juffra" was among the targets hit before dawn. Juffra is one of at least two air bases deep in the country's interior, on main routes that lead from neighboring countries in the Sahara region that have been suppliers of arms and fighters for the Gadhafi regime.
The town of Sabha, about 385 miles south of Tripoli, has another air base and international airport and is a major transit point for the ethnic Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger who have fought for Gadhafi for the past two decades. Malian officials say hundreds of Tuareg men have left to fight in Libya in the recent uprising.
France: Operation To Last Weeks, Not Months
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Thursday that the international military operation against Gadhafi's forces might last days or weeks — but not months — and would not involve ground troops.
"It's not Afghanistan and it's not Iraq," Juppe said, speaking to reporters ahead of EU and NATO meetings. "There will be no troops on the ground in Libya. We will neutralize Gadhafi from the air, and the Libyan people will decide their destiny."
The opposition keeps getting pushed back when trying to fight forward into the town of Ajdabiya.
Russia's former ambassador to Libya said Gadhafi could hold off coalition forces for months, and still enjoys broad public support and will not step down.
Vladimir Chamov, who was relieved of his duties last weekend by President Dmitry Medvedev, said on arrival in Moscow late Wednesday that the hostilities could turn Libya into a hotbed of instability resembling Iraq or Somalia.
Five days of Western airstrikes appear to have staved off what looked like imminent defeat for the rebels a week ago. But the decimation of Gadhafi's air force and the targeting of his ground forces and military infrastructure have failed to break a stalemate between rebels and regime forces on the ground in cities such as Misurata and Ajdabiya.
"Rebels have been unable to dislodge loyalist Gadhafi forces at the entrance to Ajdabiya," NPR's Eric Westervelt said, reporting from 100 miles north in the rebels' de facto capital, Benghazi.
Ajdabiya has been under siege for more than a week. Opposition fighters held the city center but were facing relentless shelling from government troops positioned on the outskirts.
"There are also clashes reported in and around the strategic oil port area of Zwitina," Westervelt said. "The fighting on the ground here in the east has been largely at a stalemate at this point."
Government troops also continued to blast Misurata but were periodically forced to roll back their tanks amid coalition airstrikes.
The NATO compromise came during a two-day summit that began Thursday in Brussels. France and Britain had appeared to be laying the groundwork for separating the intervention into military and political sides. The military side could be managed by NATO, while the political side would be run by a different group that would include Arab countries and be seen less as Western interventionism.
Senior administration officials said the breakthrough came in a four-way telephone call with Clinton and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Turkey. The four worked out the way forward, which included the immediate transfer of command and control of the no-fly zone over Libya, and by early next week of the rest of the U.N.-mandated mission.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military planning, said the actual handover of the no-fly zone would occur in one or two days. They said NATO would have a final operational plan by over the weekend for how it would assume control over the rest of the protection mission, and that it would be executable by Tuesday's meeting in London of nations contributing to the military action. The officials said the decision of which commanders control which areas was still being worked out.
U.S., European, and Arab and African officials have been invited to London next week for political talks about Libya. Clinton said she will attend the meeting.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the conference will be an opportunity to assess the implementation of the U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya. He said the list of countries invited will be wide and inclusive and that it will also focus on the humanitarian needs of the Libyan people.
Hague told Parliament on Thursday that the rationale behind the U.N. actions was more valid than ever. Pointing to the continued "appalling violence" against civilians in Libya, he said that "robust action" to implement the no-fly zone must continue.
Hague listed a number of rebel-held areas in which people were trapped in their homes without power and food, afraid to venture out under threat of military sharpshooters.
With reporting from NPR's David Greene in Tripoli, Eric Westervelt in Benghazi, Eleanor Beardsley in Paris, Sylvia Poggioli in Rome, Larry Miller in London, and Tom Bowman in Washington, D.C. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.