President Barack Obama categorically ruled out on Wednesday a land invasion to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi as coalition forces launched a fifth day of air strikes against government military targets in the North African nation.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that he cannot predict when the no-fly zone operation will end, but that the United States could turn over control of it as early as Saturday.
Obama also said the United States will be pulling back this week from its dominant role in the international campaign aimed at preventing Gadhafi from attacking Libyan civilians.
Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, a top U.S. officer in the campaign in Libya, said international forces were attacking government troops that have been storming population centers.
"From Benghazi, which we now believe to be under opposition control, we have moved west to Ajdabiya," Heuber told Pentagon reporters by phone from the U.S. command ship in the Mediterranean sea.
"In from Ajdabiya to Misrata, the coalition's targeting priorities included Gadhafi's mechanized forces, mobile surface-to-air missile sites and lines of communications that supply their beans and their bullets," Hueber said.
Earlier, officials said missiles from F-15 fighter jets destroyed Gadhafi missile sites around Tripoli, and international forces also struck a government ammunition depot outside Misrata and ground forces outside Ajdabiya. Residents in Misrata said coalition attacks forced government troops to withdraw tanks there.
Obama was asked in an interview with the Spanish-language network Univision if a land invasion would be out of the question in the event air strikes were to fail to dislodge Gadhafi from power.
Obama replied that it was absolutely out of the question.
Asked what the exit strategy is, he did not lay out a vision for ending the international action but rather said that "the exit strategy will be executed this week in the sense that we will be pulling back from our much more active efforts to shape the environment."
"We'll still be in a support role; we'll still be providing jamming and intelligence and other assets that are unique to us, but this is an international effort that's designed to accomplish the goals that were set out in the Security Council resolution," Obama said.
Obama had said last week that he had no intention of sending ground combat troops into Libya, and his statements in the interview served to reinforce that point.
As the air war in Libya achieves some of its early objectives, such as grounding Gadhafi's air force, the administration is looking for a quick way out of the front-line role it has assumed in an international operation that has yet to gain the robust participation of Arab nations that Washington wanted.
NATO warships have started patrolling off Libya's coast to enforce the U.N. arms embargo, as the international alliance appeared set to assume responsibility for the no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians.
However, NATO countries failed to agree on Wednesday for the Western military alliance to take over command of military operations in Libya from the United States, a NATO diplomat said.
After ambassadors of the 28-nation alliance held a third day of meetings in Brussels, the diplomat said: "No decision on anything."
Problems remained over the relationship between enforcing a UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya and military operations to protect civilians, and how broad the mission should be, he said.
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