Coalition Airstrikes Target Libya For A Second Day

A cruise missile destroyed a building in Moammar Gadhafi's residential compound in Tripoli Sunday night. And rebel fighters report air strikes on Gadhafi's forces in eastern Libya on Monday. The U.S. and other governments behind the attacks say the goal is to protect Libyan civilians and force Gadhafi to back off from his attacks.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Libya, coalition airstrikes are continuing today. Last night a cruise missile destroyed a building in Moammar Gadhafi's residential compound in Tripoli. And rebel fighters report airstrikes on Gadhafi's forces in eastern Libya this morning. The U.S. and other governments behind the attacks say the goal is to protect Libyan civilians and force Gadhafi to back off from his attacks. Beyond those limited aims, however, the mission is unclear.

Joining us now to help sort some of this out is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Good morning.

TOM GJELTEN: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What is the Pentagon saying about this reported strike on Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli?

TOM GJELTEN: Well, Renee, the Pentagon insists that the targets that they're hitting in and around Tripoli are air defense systems. Now, of course that could include command and control centers for that air defense system. And Pentagon officials say it's entirely possible that within one of Gadhafi's compounds there was some facility associated with the air defense system. And of course that was a big explosion that was seen and heard there yesterday, but commanders say they are not deliberately going after Gadhafi himself.

The director of the Pentagon Joint Staff, Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, was asked at a Pentagon briefing yesterday if he could guarantee that the coalition is not going to target Gadhafi. Here's now he responded.

Vice Admiral BILL GORTNEY (Director of Joint Staff): At this particular point, I can guarantee that he's not on a targeting list. We're not targeting his residence at this time. We're there to set the conditions and enforce the United Nations Security Council resolution.

GJELTEN: But you know, Renee, there's enough ambiguity in there. And that strike last night was certainly close enough to Gadhafi to make him feel nervous, and I think that U.S. commanders are fine with that.

MONTAGNE: And what other operations are under way?

GJELTEN: Well, the other big operation yesterday was a series of very violent strikes on the road between Benghazi and Tripoli, on Gadhafi's ground forces tanks, armored vehicles. A number of fighter jets, U.S. and others, came in and hammered those vehicles and tanks, left them burning, killed a lot of Gadhafi's soldiers there. It was a really violent strike.

But that really stopped the advance of Gadhafi forces to Benghazi. In fact, with the air operations, the area around Benghazi is now secure. There is a secure no-fly zone and safe ground conditions around Benghazi itself.

MONTAGNE: And something people have been talking after this started, the U.S. military has for years been concerned about exit strategies. Is there one here?

GJELTEN: Boy, it's hard to see it, Renee. You know, the United States and other governments have said that Gadhafi has lost his legitimacy and has to go. They say that's what needs to happen. But the U.N. resolution doesn't call for that, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated yesterday on a series of news interviews that that is not the military objective. The air power that's being brought to bear here to is limited. There are no forward air controllers on the ground to direct strikes, no ground troops, no advisors to the rebel forces.

So that does leave the question of when and why and how you stop this operation. It's not clear and I can tell you, Renee, from my conversations with military commanders, that lack of clarity has a lot of people feeling uncomfortable.

MONTAGNE: And it's been a bit murky as well when it comes to the question of who is leading this operation. The White House has played down the lead role, so has the State Department. Which country is in fact in charge? And how is that evolving?

GJELTEN: The United States is officially in charge. There's a U.S. commander in charge. And the great majority of strikes are with U.S. assets. But it's changing.

Here was Secretary Gates speaking to that question yesterday.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): We agreed to use our unique capabilities at the front end of this process, and then we expected in a matter of days to be able to turn over the primary responsibility to others. We will continue to support the coalition. We'll be a member of the coalition. We will have a military role in the coalition. But we will not have the preeminent role.

GJELTEN: That's Defense Secretary Robert Gates. And Renee, here is the countries already involved: the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Qatar.

So Renee, once this operation really is international and command has been shifted, you're basically going to have a war run by a committee.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

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