WASHINGTON – U.S. Air Force and Marine attack planes struck targets in Libya on a stretch of Mediterranean coastline near the cities of Sirte and Brega on Monday, the final day of planned U.S. combat missions in the North African nation, U.S. officials said.
An Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt attacked near Brega, which is among several contested cities along the Libyan coast, and an AV-8B Harrier struck near Sirte, the home town of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the Pentagon said. Navy Capt. Darryn James, a Pentagon spokesman, said both attacks targeted Libyan military vehicles "as part of our commitment to protect the Libyan civilian population." He gave no other details.
Several officials, meanwhile, said they saw little indication that the Obama administration will decide to provide weapons to the rebels, who are greatly outgunned by Gadhafi's forces. Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued against it last week, telling Congress that if it is determined that the rebels should receive foreign weapons, the supplies should come from countries other than the United States. The White House has said it has not ruled it in or out.
"They kind of haven't taken it off the table, so it's like an option, but I don't see anything moving towards actually doing it," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told a Capitol Hill news conference Monday.
The U.S. had announced that last Saturday would be the final day of U.S. combat missions in Libya, but the U.S. agreed to a NATO request for a 48-hour extension.
"Tonight, U.S. military assets will officially shift to a support mode to NATO," James said Monday.
Rebel fighters pushed back into Brega, seizing half the city and pledging to drive out Gadhafi's forces. The U.S. defense official who disclosed the A-10 attacks near Brega said American officials consider the city, while heavily contested, to still be in the government's hands.
After gaining control of Brega earlier on a westward march toward Sirte, the rebels fled last Tuesday and Wednesday under heavy shelling by Gadhafi forces. At that point, U.S. and NATO attack missions were limited by what numerous U.S. officials have called restrictive weather conditions.
"It definitely was a major issue on those two days," as well as on Thursday, Air Force Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward said in a telephone interview Monday. At the time she was running the air campaign as the Joint Force Air Component Commander for Gen. Carter Ham; she was replaced by U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Jodice II on Thursday as part of the transition to full NATO control of the Libya operation.
Jodice's role shows that although the U.S. handed off control of the Libya mission to NATO last week, Americans are playing a prominent part in the newly configured military command. Jodice reports to a Canadian three-star general, Charles Bouchard, who is deputy commander of NATO's Allied Joint Force Command at Naples, Italy. Bouchard's NATO boss is an American, Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, whose boss is also an American admiral, James Stavridis, the supreme allied commander Europe, based in Belgium.
Cloudy weather interfered with strike missions, Woodward and other officials said, in part by limiting pilots' ability to visually confirm their targets before firing. Restrictive rules of engagement are in place in the Libya operation in an effort to minimize unintended civilian casualties. Woodward, speaking from her 17th Air Force headquarters at Ramstein air base in Germany, said the challenge of distinguishing between regime and rebel forces was made more complicated when Gadhafi's troops began using civilian, rather than military, vehicles to advance and attack.
A number of U.S. combat aircraft, including fighter jets, will remain on standby in the region, in the event NATO commanders request help in coming days. Other U.S. planes will continue providing support in the form of aerial refueling, intelligence collection and aerial reconnaissance and surveillance.
Also remaining part of the NATO mission are several Navy EA-18G Growler electronic attack planes, which protect friendly aircraft in hostile territory by locating air defense radars and neutralizing them with confusing or blinding electronic signals. The Growlers also can disrupt communications of hostile ground forces.
Also Monday, the Obama administration lifted financial and travel sanctions it imposed last month against Libya's foreign minister, who has since defected and broken ties Gadhafi.
The Treasury Department said it had dropped the former minister, Moussa Koussa, from a blacklist of Libyan officials who had been banned from traveling to the United States and whose assets in U.S. jurisdictions had been frozen. The department said it took the step to reward Koussa for his decision last week to defect and encourage other members of Gadhafi's inner circle to follow suit.
There are now 13 senior Libyan officials on the blacklist, including Gadhafi, his wife and sons. The Treasury Department said it plans to announce sanctions against other officials in the coming days.
The administration declined substantive comment on a diplomatic push by the Gadhafi regime that could involve one of his sons taking power.
"It's not something that the U.S. needs to decide," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. He also said that the U.S. was not yet ready to recognize the Libyan opposition, though he said "we continue to advise them and communicate with them regularly."
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.