* In U.S. speech, Obama defends military intervention
* Obama says US military will not pursue “regime change”
* Rebels take another coastal town, press west
* Britain, France urge Gaddafi supporters: drop him now (Recasts with Obama speech)
By Angus MacSwan and Maria Golovnina
NAWFALIYAH/MISRATA, Libya, March 28 (Reuters) - Rebels advanced west on Monday towards Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s birthplace as President Barack Obama told Americans U.S. forces will not get bogged down in an Iraq-style “regime change” war.
In a nationally televised address in Washington, Obama aimed to counter criticism that he lacked clear objectives and a credible exit strategy in Libya. But he underscored the limits of U.S. military action and acknowledged Gaddafi may be able to cling to power. [ID:nN28190390]
Emboldened by Western-led air strikes against Gaddafi’s troops, rebels took the town of Nawfaliyah and moved toward Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town and an important military base, in the sixth week of an uprising against his 41-year rule.
Rebels fired mortars and heavy machineguns in sporadic clashes with loyalist forces.
As the rebels pressed forward in the east, Gaddafi’s troops were patrolling an area near the centre of Misrata after shelling the previously rebel-controlled western city for days and Arab news networks reported Western air strikes in the west of Tripoli.
The government in Tripoli said it had “liberated” Misrata from rebels and declared a ceasefire there. [ID:nLDE72ROO9] <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
More on Middle East unrest: [nTOPMEAST] [nLDE71O2CH]
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In his speech, Obama vowed to work with allies to hasten Gaddafi’s exit from power but said he would not use force to topple him — as former U.S. President George W. Bush did in ousting Saddam Hussein in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq,” Obama told an audience of military officers in Washington. “But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”
Broadening the Libya military mission to include regime change would be a mistake, Obama said, and “if we tried to overthrow Gaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter,” making it likely U.S. ground troops would have to be deployed.
He did not specify how long U.S. forces would be involved and how they would eventually exit the conflict.
Diplomatic activity accelerated on the eve of a 35-nation meeting in London on Tuesday to discuss the crisis in the oil-producing North African desert state.
Italy proposed a deal including a ceasefire, exile for Gaddafi and dialogue between rebels and tribal leaders.
The rebel leadership ruled out compromise with Gaddafi’s followers. “We have had a vision from the very beginning and the main ingredient of this vision is the downfall of the Gaddafi regime,” spokesman Hafiz Ghoga told reporters in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya.
Qatar became the first Arab country to recognise Libya’s rebels as the people’s legitimate representative, in a move that may presage similar moves from other Gulf states. Libyan state television called the move “blatant interference.” [ID:nLDE72R0XH]
Russia criticised the Western intervention that has turned the tide in the conflict, saying it amounted to taking sides in a civil war and breached the terms of a United Nations Security Council resolution. [ID:nLDE72R0QW]
On Sunday, NATO agreed to take full command of military operations in Libya after a week of heated negotiations.
The United States, which led the initial phase, had sought to scale back its role in another Muslim country after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. An alliance spokeswoman said the transition would take a couple of days.
Libya accused NATO of “terrorising” and killing its people as part of a global plot to humiliate and weaken it.
U.S. Vice Admiral Bill Gortney said the rebels fighting Gaddafi were not robust and the gains they have made on the battlefield in recent days were tenuous.
Gortney, director of the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, said the United States was not directly supporting the opposition but it had achieved a military benefit from coalition air strikes.
He said the United States had no confirmed report of any civilian casualty caused by coalition forces and that coalition had fired six Tomahawk cruise missiles in the past 24 hours and had carried out 178 air sorties.
The French and British leaders called for supporters of Gaddafi to abandon him and asked Libyans opposing him to join a political process to pave the way for his departure.
“Gaddafi must go immediately,” President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron said in a joint statement. “We call on all his supporters to drop him before it is too late.”
In the nine days since the start of the Western-led bombing, the motley volunteer force of rebels has pressed half-way along the coast from its stronghold of Benghazi towards Tripoli and regained control of major oil terminals in the OPEC state.
The United States gave a green light to sales of Libyan crude oil from rebel-held territory, giving a potential boost to forces battling Gaddafi. [ID:nN28205492]
With its finances under pressure, the rebel leadership said it hopes to restart oil exports within a week. Some energy traders said that, sanctions aside, they could not touch Libyan oil because of shipping and legal risks.
On Monday rebels met sporadic resistance as they pushed their advance in convoys of pick-up trucks with machineguns.
Just west of sandy, barren Nawfaliyah, bursts of sustained machinegun fire and the whoosh of several rockets could be heard, and plumes of black smoke rose ahead.
“Those are from our guns,” said Faisal Bozgaia, 28, a hospital worker turned rebel fighter, pointing to the smoke.
Soldiers were manning checkpoints and green Libyan flags flapped in the wind. Militiamen fired AK-47 rifles defiantly into the air. “If they come to Sirte, we will defend our city,” said Osama bin Nafaa, 32, a policeman. [ID:nLDE72R0TL]
In Misrata, Gaddafi soldiers manned checkpoints and took up positions on rooftops. Some housefronts were smashed, smoke rose from several areas and gunfire rang out across the city.
Several civilians approached a group of journalists, some of them woman and children waving green flags. “Misrata is ours, there are still some bad guys in other parts, but Gaddafi is winning, the city is ours,” resident Abduq Karim said.
A rebel spokesman in another western town, Zintan, said forces loyal to Gaddafi had bombarded the town with rockets early on Monday, Al Jazeera reported. [ID:nWEA1079]
Western-led air strikes began on March 19, two days after the U.N. Security Council authorised “all necessary measures” to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s forces.
The start of allied bombings proved a turning point for the rebels who were hemmed into Benghazi at the time.
Russia, which abstained in the U.N. vote, said Western attacks on Gaddafi forces amounted to taking sides.
“We consider that intervention by the coalition in what is essentially an internal civil war is not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council resolution,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the BBC: “We are there to protect civilians — no more, no less.” (Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Edmund Blair, Maria Golovnina, Michael Georgy, Ibon Villelabeitia, Lamine Chikhi, Mariam Karouny, Joseph Nasr, Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Steve Gutterman, Matt Spetalnick and Alister Bull; Writing by Mark Trevelyan, Tom Pfeiffer and Will Dunham. Editing by Christopher Wilson)