SANTIAGO, Chile — President Barack Obama said Monday the United States favors the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi but the international military effort has a more limited goal of establishing a no-fly zone over Libya and protecting civilians against massacre by forces loyal to the longtime ruler.
Obama said the United States would transfer leadership of the military operation to other, unnamed participants within a “matter of days, not weeks,” but he declined to provide a more precise timetable.
“Obviously, the situation is evolving on the ground, and how quickly this transfer takes place will be determined by the recommendation of our commanding officers that the . first phase of the mission has been completed,” Obama said.
The president made his comments at a news conference in Chile, the second of three stops on a South American trip that coincides with the beginning of an international effort to create a no-fly zone to keep Gaddafi forces from taking to the air over parts of Libya. The United States has fired close to 150 cruise missiles against Libyan targets in the past three days, including one that hit inside the compound in Tripoli where Gaddafi and his family live.
The destruction within the compound has generated questions about the objective of the military campaign, and Obama described how the United States was leading an air assault with one set of goals while pursuing another objective on its own.
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“Our military action is in support of an international mandate from the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Col. Gaddafi to his people. Not only was he carrying out murders of civilians but he threatened more,” the president said.
“I have also stated that it is U.S. policy that Gaddafi has to go,” he added, noting that the United States has imposed economic sanctions on Libya and frozen assets that the Libyan leader might have been able to use to purchase weapons or hire mercenaries.
The president also said he had not had second thoughts about beginning the air offensive while he was traveling outside the United States.
“Keep in mind we were working on very short time frame, and we had done all the work and it was just a matter of seeing how Gaddafi would react to the warning I issued on Friday. After consulting with our allies we decided to move forward, and it was a matter of me directing” Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others to implement plans already drawn up, Obama said.