RAS LANOUF, Libya – International air raids targeted Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte for the first time Sunday night as rebels quickly closed in on the regime stronghold, a formidable obstacle that must be overcome for government opponents to reach the capital, Tripoli.
A heavy bombardment of Tripoli also began after nightfall, with at least nine loud explosions and anti-aircraft fire, an Associated Press reporter in the city said.
Meanwhile Sunday, in a sign of U.S. confidence that the weeklong assault has tamed Gadhafi’s air defenses, the Pentagon has reduced the amount of naval firepower arrayed against him, officials in Washington said.
The move, not yet publicly announced, reinforces the White House message of a diminishing U.S. role – a central point in President Barack Obama’s national address tonight on Libya. The White House booked Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on three Sunday news shows to promote the administration’s case ahead of the speech.
At least one of the five Navy ships and submarines that have launched dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libyan targets from positions in the Mediterranean Sea has left the area, three defense officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive military movements.
That still leaves what officials believe is sufficient naval firepower off Libya’s coast, and it coincides with NATO’s decision Sunday to take over command and control of the entire Libya operation. Aided by international air power, Libyan rebels regained two key oil complexes along the coastal highway that runs from the opposition-held eastern half of the country toward Sirte and beyond that, to the capital. Sirte is strategically located about halfway between the rebel-held east and the Gadhafi-controlled west along the Mediterranean coast. It is a bastion of support for Gadhafi that will be difficult for the rebels to overrun and the entrances to the city have reportedly been mined. If the rebels could somehow overcome Sirte, momentum for a march on the capital would skyrocket.
After nightfall, Libyan state television confirmed air raids on Sirte and Tripoli. Foreign journalists who were taken by the regime to Sirte a few hours before the bombings began reported hearing at least six loud explosions and warplanes flying overhead. They were driven around the city and said it was swarming with soldiers on patrol and armed civilians, many of them wearing green bandannas that signaled their support for Gadhafi.
In the contested city of Misrata in western Libya, residents reported fighting between rebels and Gadhafi loyalists who fired from tanks on residential areas. Misrata is one of two cities in western Libya that have risen against the regime and suffered brutal crackdowns. It is located between Tripoli and Sirte on the coastal road.
In Washington, Gates said he could not offer a timetable for how long the Libya operation could last, as the Obama administration tried to bolster its case for bringing the United States into another war in the Muslim world.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after nearly 42 years in power. The airstrikes have crippled Gadhafi’s forces, allowing rebels to advance less than two weeks after they had seemed at the brink of defeat.
Now that the rebels have regained control of two key oil ports, they are making tentative plans to exploit Libya’s most valuable natural resource. But production is at a trickle, the foreign oil workers and their vital expertise have fled the country, and even talk of a marketing deal with Qatar seems murky at best.
“As they move round the coast, of course, the rebels will increasingly control the exit points of Libya’s oil,” British Defense Secretary Liam Fox told the BBC. “That will produce a very dynamic and a very different equilibrium inside Libya. How that will play out in terms of public opinion and the Gadhafi regime remains to be seen.”
The coastal complexes at Ras Lanouf and Brega were responsible for a large chunk of Libya’s 1.5 million barrels of daily exports, which have all but stopped since the uprising that began Feb. 15 and was inspired by the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt.
On the eastern approach of Ras Lanouf, airstrikes hit three empty tank transporters and left two buildings that appeared to be sleeping quarters pockmarked with shrapnel. Like the oil port of Brega and the city of Ajdabiya before it, Gadhafi’s troops appear to have left in a hurry, abandoning ammunition and disappearing without a fight.
“There was no resistance. Gadhafi’s forces just melted away,” said Suleiman Ibrahim, a 31-year-old volunteer, sitting in the back of a pickup truck on the road between the two towns. “This couldn’t have happened without NATO. They gave us big support.”
The shrinking of the U.S. naval presence adds substance to Obama’s expected reassurance to the American people that after kicking off the Libyan mission, the U.S. is now handing off to partner countries in Europe and elsewhere the bulk of the responsibility for suppressing Gadhafi’s forces.
NATO’s governing body, meeting in Brussels, accepted a plan for the transfer of command. That is expected to mean that U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham, who has been the top commander of the Libya operation, will switch to a support role.
Obama administration officials claimed progress in Libya, but lawmakers in both parties voiced skepticism over the length, scope and costs of the mission.
The Pentagon said Sunday that over the previous 24 hours, U.S. aircraft had flown 88 combat strikes against Libyan targets, down from 96 a day earlier. It provided no details on targets.
In advance of Obama’s speech at 4:30 PDT today, Gates and Clinton stressed the administration’s message that the U.S. role in the mission will shrink, illustrating that it’s possible for the U.S. military to partner with others without always being the leader.
Gates said the no-fly zone and efforts to protect civilians from attack by pro-Gadhafi forces will have to be sustained “for some period of time.”
It is unclear how long the U.S. will keep a Navy command ship, the USS Mount Whitney, in its role as overall coordinator of the sea and air campaign, once NATO assumes full command. NATO could run the full operation out of its Allied Joint Forces Command headquarters in Naples, Italy.
The Navy has had three submarines in the Mediterranean – the USS Providence, the USS Scranton and the USS Florida – plus two destroyers, the USS Barry and the USS Stout. All five are equipped with Tomahawks, the cruise missile that can fly long distances and maneuver to hit fixed targets like surface-to-air missile batteries and other air defense elements that posed a threat to coalition air patrols. It was not clear Sunday which of the five had been ordered out of the area.