Allies Open Air Assault on Qaddafi’s Forces in Libya

Petty Officer First Class Nathanael Miller/United States Navy

The United States Navy destroyer Barry fired Tomahawk missiles from the Mediterranean Sea on Saturday. The Navy provided this photograph, taken through night-vision lenses.
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TRIPOLI, Libya — American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Saturday, unleashing warplanes and missiles in a military intervention on a scale not seen in the Arab world since the Iraq war.


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Pool photo by Lionel Bonaventure

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Saturday.
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The mission to impose a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone and keep Colonel Qaddafi from using air power against beleaguered rebel forces was portrayed by Pentagon and NATO officials as under French and British leadership.

But the Pentagon said that American forces were mounting an initial campaign to knock out Libya’s air defense systems, firing volley after volley of Tomahawk missiles from nearby ships against missile, radar and communications centers around Tripoli, the capital, and the western cities of Misurata and Surt.

Early Sunday, the sound of antiaircraft fire and screaming fighter jets echoed across Tripoli, punctuated by heavy explosions.

Speaking on Libyan state television, Colonel Qaddafi said the international action against his forces was unjustified, calling it “simply a colonial crusader aggression that may ignite another large-scale crusader war.”

Muhammad Zweid, secretary of the Libyan Parliament, said the intervention had “caused some real harm against civilians and buildings.” But he declined to specify which civilian buildings or locations were hit.

Officials took pains to show reporters a group of civilians whom they portrayed as volunteers who had flocked to Mr. Qaddafi’s compound to shield him from the attacks.

President Obama, speaking during a visit to Brazil, reiterated promises that no American ground forces would be used.

“I am deeply aware of the risks of any military action, no matter what limits we place on it,” he said. “I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice, and it’s not a choice that I make lightly. But we can’t stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy.”

The campaign began with French warplanes, which started their attacks even before the end of an emergency meeting among allied leaders in Paris. The officials, reacting to news that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces were attacking the rebel capital, Benghazi, despite international demands for a cease-fire, said they had no choice but to defend Libyan civilians and opposition forces.

But there were signs of disagreement among the allies in Paris. Some diplomats said that French insistence on the meeting had delayed military action against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces before they reached Benghazi, a charge that French officials denied.

Benghazi residents interviewed by telephone reported a relentless artillery barrage before government tanks entered the city from the west on Saturday morning. There was heavy fighting in the city center, and pro-Qaddafi snipers could be seen on the building that the rebel council used as a foreign ministry, not far from the courthouse that is the council’s headquarters.

“Our assessment is that the aggressive actions by Qaddafi forces continue in many places around the country,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after the Paris meeting. “We saw it over the last 24 hours, and we’ve seen no real effort on the part of the Qaddafi forces to abide by a cease-fire, despite the rhetoric.”

Western leaders acknowledged, though, that there was no endgame beyond the immediate United Nations authorization to protect Libyan civilians, and it was uncertain that even military strikes would force Colonel Qaddafi from power. 

Many of the leaders who were in Paris had called for Colonel Qaddafi to quit, and it may be that military intervention leads to negotiations with the opposition for the colonel and his family to leave — or, at the least, buys time for the rebels to regroup.

There are risks, though. One widely held concern is the possibility of a divided Libya with no clear authority, opening the door for Islamic extremists to begin operating in a country that had been closed to them. The international effort, called Operation Odyssey Dawn, may also present a double standard: While the West has taken punitive action against Libya, a relatively isolated Arab state, the governments in Bahrain and Yemen have faced few penalties after cracking down on their own protest movements.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli, Libya; Steven Erlanger from Paris; and Elisabeth Bumiller from Washington. Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from eastern Libya, Steven Lee Myers from Paris and Jackie Calmes from Brasília.