TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Attacks on Libya are likely to slow in the coming days, a U.S. general said on Monday, as Western powers consolidate a no-fly zone that some say is unlikely to bring an early end to the country’s civil war.
Rebels who began a revolt against Muammar Gaddafi a month ago have so far done little to capitalize on a two-day bombardment that halted an advance by government forces on their Benghazi stronghold and targeted Libya’s air defenses.
But Washington, wary of being sucked into another war after long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, has ruled out specific action to overthrow Gaddafi, though France said on Monday it hoped the Libyan government would collapse from within.
“My sense is that — that unless something unusual or unexpected happens, we may see a decline in the frequency of attacks,” General Carter Ham, who is leading U.S. forces in the Libyan operation, told reporters in Washington.
He added, however, that “we possess the capability to bring overwhelming combat power to bear, as we have done in the initial stages of this, where it’s been required.”
Libyan state television reported that several sites in the capital Tripoli had been subject to new attacks by what it called the “crusader enemy” on Monday.
Reuters reporters heard two big explosions followed by anti-aircraft fire in Tripoli on Monday evening.
The United States has run into some criticism for the intensity of the firepower used on Libya, which included more than 110 Tomahawk missiles fired on Saturday to take out Libya’s air defenses and allow Western planes to patrol the skies.
Although a U.N. resolution authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, Arab League chief Amr Moussa has questioned the methods used, while Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin compared the air campaign to “medieval crusades.”
President Barack Obama said the United States, which has been joined by Britain, France, Canada and Italy among others in the air campaign, planned to transfer the lead military role shortly. Britain and France led calls for the intervention.
“We anticipate this transition to take place in a matter of days and not in a matter of weeks,” Obama told a news conference during a visit to Chile.
Libyan rebels have welcomed the air strikes and at the frontline along the coast from Benghazi have cheered warplanes as they roar overhead. Rebel headquarters also say they are coordinating with the Western powers launching air strikes.
But there was little sign at the vanguard of battle in east Libya that this communication extended to forward rebel units.
Western powers say they are not providing close air support to rebels or seeking to destroy Gaddafi’s army, but rather only protecting civilians, as their U.N. mandate allows, leaving disorganized rebel fighters struggling to make headway.
“If we don’t get more help from the West, Gaddafi’s forces will eat us alive,” rebel fighter Nouh Musmari told Reuters.
Leaders of the rebel movement in Benghazi have admitted their forces need more training. In the past, they also complained their over-enthusiastic fighters were too quick to race ahead, only to be driven back by Gaddafi’s army.
Gaddafi’s forces have also tried to push into cities where they would be less vulnerable to attack from the air, while in the capital Tripoli people have rallied to support their leader.
Security analysts say they are unclear what will happen if the Libyan leader digs in, especially since Western powers have made clear they would be unwilling to see Libya partitioned between a rebel-held east and Gaddafi-controlled west.
“Libya will not be a cakewalk,” said Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation think tank.
He added that the conflict’s current phase was reminiscent of the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, which failed to meet expectations it would bring down Slobodan Milosevic within days.
“There is still a real risk of a protracted stalemate, with neither side wanting to negotiate. So the endgame remains very unclear,” said Jeremy Binnie, a senior analyst with IHS Jane’s.
In an appearance on Libyan television on Sunday, Gaddafi promised his enemies a “long war.”
Officials in Tripoli said earlier that one missile in the second wave of attacks, which they said was intended to kill Gaddafi, had destroyed a building in his fortified compound, heavily bombed in 1986 by the Reagan administration.
“It was a barbaric bombing,” said government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim, showing pieces of shrapnel that he said came from the missile. “This contradicts American and Western (statements) ... that it is not their target to attack this place.”
A Libyan government spokesman also said that foreign attacks had killed many people by bombing ports and Sirte airport.
“You saw that place (Sirte airport),” Mussa Ibrahim told a news conference. “It’s a civilian airport. It was bombarded and many people were killed. Harbours were also bombarded.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said there were no plans to target Gaddafi. “The U.N. resolution is limited in its scope, it explicitly does not provide legal authority for action to bring about Gaddafi’s removal from power by military means,” Cameron told parliament.
“We will help fulfill the U.N. Security Council (resolution), it is for the Libyan people to determine their government and their destiny, but our view is clear, there is no decent future for Libya with Colonel Gaddafi remaining in power.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he hoped Libyans themselves would topple Gaddafi: “When will the regime collapse? It is quite possible that, given the weakness of the regime, it will break up from within.”
Gaddafi’s government announced a ceasefire on Sunday but this was dismissed by the United States and Britain, who said an earlier ceasefire pledge had been broken. The government accused the rebels of breaking the ceasefire.
In Misrata, the only major rebel-held city in the west, residents said they had again come under attack on Monday.
“The people of Misrata went into the streets and to the (city) center, unarmed, in an attempt to stop Gaddafi’s forces entering the city,” a resident told Reuters by telephone.
“When they gathered in the center the Gaddafi forces started shooting at them with artillery and guns. They committed a massacre. The hospital told us at least nine people were killed,” said the resident, who gave his name as Saadoun.
The report could not be independently verified because Libyan authorities prevented reporters from reaching Misrata.
Residents said water supplies had been cut off and government troops had encircled the city.
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Angus MacSwan in Benghazi, Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Hamid Ould Ahmed and Christian Lowe in Algiers; Tom Perry in Cairo, John Irish in Paris, Missy Ryan in Washington, Matt Spetalnick in Rio de Janeiro; Writing by Myra MacDonald; Editing by Kevin Liffey