Tripoli, Libya – A day after American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader delivered a fresh and defiant tirade on Sunday, pledging retaliation and saying his forces would fight a long war to victory.
He was speaking in a telephone call to state television, which, apparently for security reasons, did not disclose his whereabouts. The Libyan leader has not been seen in public since the United States and European countries unleashed warplanes and missiles in a military intervention on a scale unparalleled in the Arab world since the Iraq war. On Sunday, American B-2 stealth bombers were reported to have struck a major Libyan airfield.
In a first assessment from Washington, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the first day of “operations yesterday went very well,” news reports said. Speaking to NBC’s Meet the Press he said a no-fly zone over Libya to ground Colonel Qaddafi’s warplanes — a prime goal of the attacks — was “effectively” in place and that a loyalist advance on the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi had been halted.
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Despite those major setbacks, Colonel Qaddafi said his forces on the ground would win in the end. And he repeated an assertion made on Saturday that he had opened military depots to his supporters and the Libyan people were now fully armed. Instead of an image of the Libyan leader, state television showed a statue of a golden fist clutching a crumpled American fighter plane, a monument to an American strike on his compound in 1986.
Speaking of a “long war,” Colonel Qaddafi said: “We will not leave our land and we will liberate it.”
“We will fight you if you continue your attacks on us,” he Qaddafi said. “Those who are on the land will win the battle,” he declared, warning without explanation that “oil will not be left to the United States, France and Britain.”
The mission to impose a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone was portrayed by Pentagon and NATO officials as under French and British leadership.
But the Pentagon said that American forces took the lead in the 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 on Sunday, the sound of antiaircraft fire and screaming fighter jets echoed across Tripoli, punctuated by heavy explosions. 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. And other officials took pains on Saturday to show reporters a group of civilians they portrayed as volunteers who had flocked to Mr. Qaddafi’s compound to shield him from the attacks.
In the rebel-held east, Benghazi seemed quiet after fighting on Saturday that inspired a panicky exodus by thousands of residents. Hundreds of cars streamed back into the city from towns further east on Sunday, finding long fuel lines, and barricades of debris on main roads. A tire repair store and a butcher shop had reopened, but most shops were shuttered.
Earlier, 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.”
China, which, like Russia, abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote authorizing the strikes, said Sunday it regretted the attacks and urged a return to stability, news reports said.
As a buildup of Western airpower continued at bases in the Mediterranean on Sunday, the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé said, “The operations will continue in the days to come, until the Libyan regime accepts the U.N. resolution,” Asked if the military operation was meant to remove Colonel Qaddafi from power, he said: “No. The plan is to help Libyans choose their future.”
The strikes came with heavy historical references, almost eight years to the day after America and its allies began bombing Baghdad in March 2003, and nearly 25 years after the night in April 1986 when President Ronald Reagan ordered American warplanes to strike at Tripoli to avenge a terrorist bombing in Berlin.
The campaign began with French warplanes, which started their attacks even before the end of an emergency meeting among allied leaders in Paris on Saturday. 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 will lead 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 operation 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.
The main barrage of missile strikes began around 2 p.m. Eastern time, when the United States Navy fired cruise missiles that struck Libya roughly an hour later, Vice Adm. William Gortney told reporters in Washington. He said the Pentagon had not yet assessed the damage that the missiles had caused and would not be able to do so until dawn broke in Libya.
The missile strikes were the start of what Admiral Gortney called a “multiphase operation,” given the code name Odyssey Dawn, to create a no-fly zone that would allow coalition aircraft to fly over Libya without the risk of being shot down. He would not say whether American aircraft would be involved in enforcing the no-fly zone, but he said that no American aircraft were directly over Libya on Saturday afternoon.
Admiral Gortney cast the United States as the “leading edge” among coalition partners in the opening phase of the attack. But in keeping with Mr. Obama’s and Mrs. Clinton’s emphasis that the administration was not driving the efforts to strike Libya, the admiral and other Pentagon officials repeated that the United States would step back within days and hand over command of the coalition to one of its European allies.
The United States has at least 11 warships stationed near Tripoli, including three submarines — the Scranton, the Florida and the Providence — and the destroyers the Stout and the Barry. All five fired cruise missiles on Saturday, the Navy said. Other coalition ships in the Mediterranean included 11 from Italy and one each from Britain, Canada and France. The Danish Defense Ministry said on Sunday that it had deployed six F-16 warplanes to bases in Sicily and there were reports of aircraft from Canada and Spain moving to Mediterranean bases.
In a report whose accuracy could not be verified, Libyan state TV Sunday morning quoted the armed forces command as saying 48 people had been killed and 150 injured.
In Paris, the emergency meeting included the prime ministers or foreign ministers from Britain, Canada, Germany, Norway, Italy, Qatar, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Poland and Mrs. Clinton for the United States.
Amr Moussa, who recently resigned as secretary general of the Arab League to run for president of Egypt, was present, along with the league’s incoming leader, Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister of Iraq. Also attending were the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Mr. Ban of the United Nations.
But no African representatives attended. The African Union chief, Jean Ping, instead traveled to Mauritania for a meeting with the continent’s leaders who sought to mediate a peaceful end to the Libyan crisis.
The United States, France and Britain had insisted that at least some Arab governments be involved in the Libyan operation, at least symbolically, to remove the chance that Colonel Qaddafi would portray the military action as another Western colonial intervention in pursuit of oil. But there was no sign that any Arab military would explicitly take part.
The initial French air sorties, which were not coordinated with other countries, angered some of the leaders in Paris, according to a senior diplomat from a NATO country. Information about the movement of Colonel Qaddafi’s troops toward Benghazi had been clear on Friday, but France blocked any NATO agreement on airstrikes until the Paris meeting, the diplomat said, suggesting that the flights could have begun before government forces reached the city.
But Bernard Valero, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said that there had been no delay because of the Paris meeting and no political decision to make the no-fly zone a NATO operation, which Paris has opposed from the start.
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, Jackie Calmes from Brasília, and Alan Cowell from Paris.
This article “Qaddafi Pledges ‘Long War’ as Allies Pursue Air Assault on Libya” originally appeared at The New York Times.
© 2011 The New York Times Company
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