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US in vanguard of Libya military operation as missiles rain down

By Terri Judd

The United States was spearheading military operations against the Gaddafi regime in Libya yesterday, despite days of insisting they were playing a support role.

Both the US and Britain said weekend operations had been successful, knocking out air defences, radars and crippling the Gaddafi regime's air force.

They said, however, that it was too early to speculate how the operation might end.

The US administration had been at pains to remain in the background, with France appearing the most hawkish in calls for the establishment of a no-fly zone, and sending in the first wave of jets on Saturday.

But the US took the lead as a second wave of bombings started last night.

Command of Operation Odyssey Dawn has been handed to General Carter F Ham, head of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in Germany.

In the area Admiral Sam Locklear is the Joint Task Force Commander on USS Mount Whitney.

While British officers have been co-ordinating with the US leaders from their headquarters in Northwood, north-west London, the Americans' vast maritime and air firepower has put them at the forefront in implementing UN Security Council resolution 1973.

Nevertheless, US Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, was keen to shift command to its European and Arab partners.

“We're looking to hand off that leadership in the next few days,” Admiral Mullen said.

Nato's governing North Atlantic Council was meeting in Brussels yesterday to consider whether to take on a formal command role, a matter complicated by the fact that nations such as Germany are not taking part in the attacks and amid misgivings this might discourage Arab involvement.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox said: “I think it is very important for opinion in the Arab world to show that this is not simply the West acting, but this is the international coalition acting.”

While both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were preparing to send in planes last night, the coalition was already looking shaky as the Arab League, which called for a no-fly zone, complained about the strikes. Secretary-General Amr Moussa said: “What we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.”

Yesterday, British Typhoon jets left RAF Coningsby in Lincoln for southern Italy. The jets, which will be joined by Tornados, are standing by at the Gioia del Colle air base to hit Libyan targets and patrol the no-fly zone. A British Trafalgar-class submarine remained off the coast of Libya.

Meanwhile, France's aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle left Toulon en route to Libya as 15 French jets flew over the country but met no resistance.

Both military and government figures played down suggestions airstrikes could be followed by a ground invasion. While UN Resolution 1973 prohibits occupying forces, experts said this would not preclude the temporary use of land forces.

On Saturday night, British and US forces hit more than 20 integrated air defence systems near Tripoli and Misrata, launching 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles from a British Trafalgar-class submarine off the coast of Libya.

At a briefing in London, senior RAF and Royal Navy commanders insisted both the Tomahawk and Tornado's Storm Shadow cruise missiles were precision weapons that could target within “one metre or two”, after claims 48 people had been killed.

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