WASHINGTON — The four-day air assault in Libya will soon achieve the objectives of establishing a no-fly zone and averting a massacre of civilians by Moammar Gadhafi’s troops, President Barack Obama said Tuesday, adding that despite squabbling among allies, the United States will hand off control of the operation to other countries within days.
“When this transition takes place, it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone,” the president said at a news conference in El Salvador as he neared the end of a Latin American trip overshadowed by events in Libya. “It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily enforcing the arms embargo. That’s precisely what the other nations are going to do.”
Obama said he has “absolutely no doubt” that a non-U.S. command entity can run the operation, although perhaps the most obvious candidate – the NATO military alliance – has yet to sort out a political agreement to do so. The president said NATO was meeting to “work out some of the mechanisms.”
Despite the cost – not only in effort, resources and potential casualties, but also in taxpayer dollars – Obama said he believes the American public is supportive of such a mission.
“This is something that we can build into our budget. And we’re confident that not only can the goals be achieved, but at the end of the day the American people are going to feel satisfied that lives were saved and people were helped,” he said.
Obama spoke as one senior American military official said the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar was expected to start flying air patrols over Libya by this weekend, becoming the first member of the Arab League to participate directly in the military mission. Obama and NATO had insisted from the start on Arab support.
The president also suggested the administration would not need to request funding from Congress for the air operations but would pay for them out of money already approved.
Administration officials briefed lawmakers during the day about costs and other details to date.
Domestic criticism of the operation has been muted so far, with the president out of the country, but is likely to increase once he flies home on Wednesday – a few hours earlier than had been scheduled.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, said the administration is getting reports – of questionable credibility – that some in Gadhafi’s inner circle may be looking for a way out of the crisis. She said some of them, allegedly acting on the Libyan leader’s behalf, have reached out to people in Europe and elsewhere to ask, in effect, “How do we get out of this?”
“Some of it is theater,” Clinton said in an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer. “Some of it is, you know, kind of, shall we say game playing.” She added: “A lot of it is just the way he behaves. It’s somewhat unpredictable. But some of it we think is exploring. You know, `What are my options? Where could I go? What could I do?’ And we would encourage that.”
The Pentagon said two dozen more Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from U.S. and British submarines late Monday and early Tuesday against Libyan targets, raising the total to 161 aimed at disabling Gadhafi’s air defenses.
Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III said Libyan ground troops will be more vulnerable as the coalition grows in size and capability, but he declined to provide details of future targeting. He spoke to reporters at the Pentagon from aboard his command ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
The president and Pentagon officials have stressed since the military campaign began that America would quickly give other countries the lead.
“I think fairly shortly we are going to be able to say that we’ve achieved the objective of a no-fly zone. We will also be able to say that we have averted immediate tragedy,” Obama said.
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He told reporters he had spoken earlier with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in hopes of quickly resolving a dispute over the transition of the military mission.
With congressional critics growing more vocal, the president defended the wisdom of the operation so far.
“It is in America’s national interests to participate … because no one has a bigger stake in making sure that there are basic rules of the road that are observed, that there is some semblance of order and justice, particularly in a volatile region that’s going through great changes,” Obama said
With longtime autocratic governments under pressure elsewhere in the Arab world, the president made clear his decision to dispatch U.S. planes and ships did not automatically signal he would do so everywhere.
“That doesn’t mean we can solve every problem in the world,” he said.
Several members of Congress, including a number from Obama’s own party, were increasingly questioning the wisdom of U.S. involvement.
“We began a military action at the same time that we don’t have a clear diplomatic policy, or a clear foreign policy when it comes to what’s going on in Libya,” said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., adding that the Obama administration lacks a clear understanding of rebel forces trying to oust Gadhafi, who has ruled for 42 years.
“Do we know what their intentions would be? Would they be able to govern if they were to succeed? And the answer is we don’t really know,” Webb said.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said he would offer an amendment to the next budget resolution that would prohibit taxpayer dollars from being used to fund U.S. military operations in Libya.
The Marine Corps, meanwhile, offered fresh details of its role in the rescue of an Air Force F-15E pilot who ejected over eastern Libya on Monday. The plane’s weapons system officer, who also ejected and made it safely back to U.S. control, was recovered in a separate operation not involving the Marines.
Unconfirmed reports from Libya said a number of civilians were wounded, apparently during the pilot rescue, but the circumstances were murky.
A senior Marine Corps officer at the Pentagon, speaking on condition of anonymity because the F-15E’s crash was still under investigation, said that during the course of the rescue two 500-pound bombs were dropped by Marine AV-8B Harrier jets.
The officer said the bombs were requested by the downed pilot, who reported concern that possibly hostile forces were approaching. The officer said it was unclear what the two bombs hit.
The pilot was picked up by an MV-22 Osprey aircraft that flew – along with a second Osprey, two CH-53E helicopters and two Harriers – from aboard the USS Kearsarge.