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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. fighter jets are still attacking Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's air defenses even after NATO took over full command of Libya operations earlier this month, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.
The disclosure came as Libyan rebels struggle to gain ground from Gaddafi's forces and NATO allies squabble publicly over stepping up air strikes to help topple him.
The Pentagon said previously it would not conduct strike sorties after April 4 without a specific request from the Brussels-based NATO alliance. But it clarified on Wednesday that this did not apply to attacks on Gaddafi's air defenses, which have continued.
Pentagon officials said the attacks on Libyan air defenses did not mean the United States had reconsidered its decision to take a limited support role in the Libya conflict.
"It is completely consistent with how we have described our support role ever since the transition to NATO lead," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.
But the strikes raise new questions about the future air campaign in Libya as Gaddafi hangs on and Britain and France call for more allied participation in the air strikes against Gaddafi's heavy weapons and on arming the rebels.
The U.S. military says the attacks -- known as Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, or SEADs -- are defensive by nature and therefore not considered "strikes."
Eleven U.S. aircraft have flown 97 sorties in Libya since April 4 and fired on air defense targets three times, the Pentagon said. The aircraft involved are six F-16 fighter jets and five EA-18 Growler electronic warfare planes.
All the aircraft had been placed under NATO command.
"These are defensive missions that are simply to protect the aircraft flying the no-fly zone," a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity.
The operations underscore concern about Gaddafi's mobile air defenses after an initial U.S.-led air campaign degraded his fixed anti-aircraft positions.
Grappling with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has been seeking to limit the U.S. role in Libya, where poorly organized rebels have so far failed to topple Gaddafi.
The Pentagon formally transferred control of coalition operations to NATO on March 31 but extended its participation in the mission to protect civilians with air strikes until April 4. That campaign included attacks on Gaddafi's ground forces and were deemed to be offensive, proper "strikes."
U.S. aircraft remain on alert and may participate in those campaigns as well if there is a specific request from NATO.
American officials have stressed that after its initial leadership of the air campaign in Libya, the United States has moved to a support role focused on aerial surveillance, jamming of Libyan communications, and refueling.
Colonel Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said the United States remained in a support role.
"Having a few aircraft providing this strike capability on a (limited) basis doesn't change that," Lapan said.
The comments came as a group of Western powers and Middle Eastern states meeting on Libya's future called for the first time for Gaddafi to step aside. Divisions have emerged over how to achieve that political goal in Libya.
Editing by John O'Callaghan and Peter Cooney