Gadhafi, Rebels Engage in Intense Ground Fighting, Allies Seek Next Steps

BY News Desk  March 23, 2011 at 12:34 PM EDT

5:30 p.m. ET | In a letter to President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, questioned the clarity of the U.S. mission in Libya. “I and many other members of the House of Representatives are troubled that U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America’s role is in achieving that mission,” Boehner wrote. “In fact, the limited, sometimes contradictory, case made to the American people by members of your Administration has left some fundamental questions about our engagement unanswered.”

In the letter Boehner requested answers as to why congressional leaders had not been consulted in the decision process, saying that the president had consulted in more detail with “foreign entities,” including the United Nations and Arab League.

Libyan rebel fighters prepares an anti-aircraft machine gun at a check point near the key city of Ajdabiya on March 23, 2011 as government forces have encircled the town. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)  Libyan rebel fighters prepares an anti-aircraft machine gun at a check point near the key city of Ajdabiya on March 23, 2011 as government forces have encircled the town. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

3 p.m. ET | French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Wednesday that representatives from the United States, Europe, and Arab and African nations will gather in London next week to iron out leadership roles in implementing the U.N. Security Council’s no-fly zone over Libya, expressing hope that more influence would shift to nations from the Arab League and African Union in an attempt to shift away from the prominence of NATO.

President Obama, eager to phase out the initially prominent role taken on by the U.S., has emphasized that he sees a transition in leadership in coming days.

After significantly damaging Gadhafi’s air capabilities, coalition strikes are targeting Gadhafi assets on the ground, especially near Misrata and Zintan in the west and Ajdabiya in the east, where government forces have focused most intensely.

12:30 p.m. ET | In a news conference by phone with reporters, Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, chief of staff Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, who is aboard the USS Mount Whitney in the Mediterranean Sea, said that coalition attacks continue against Gadhafi forces “engaged in ground fighting in a number of cities, including Misrata and Ajdabiya,” who continue to “target civilian populations” in those areas.

He said coalition strikes had hobbled Gadhafi’s air defenses. “We have no confirmed flight activity by regime air forces over the past 24 hours,” he said.

“It’s an extremely complex and difficult environment and our primary focus is to interdict those forces before they enter the city,” he said, referring to the air campaign against Gadhafi’s forces near densely populated areas. He said there have been no known reports of civilian casualties as a result of coalition air strikes.

Despite successes against Gadhafi’s air and ground assets, Hueber said that as of yet “we have no indication that Gadhafi’s forces are adhering to the United Nations Security Council Resolution.”

“What’s been expected of all forces, whether they be mechanized forces or artillery or air forces, they are to cease fire, all attacks on civilians must stop, and those forces that are advancing on the cities of Benghazi, Ajdabiya and Mistrata today, must stop advancing,” he said.

He declined to address the possibility of future operations beyond air strikes.

11:45 a.m. ET | Attacks by Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in Misrata appeared to ease Wednesday night, with some shops reopening in the western city after days of unrelenting fire. Though tanks pulled back, some reported continued sniper fire as residents tentatively stepped out to resume normal activities.

To the east, Ajdabiya remained the target of shelling as Gadhafi’s forces attempt to move eastward toward the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.

Coalition military officials say days of heavy air strikes have crippled Gadhafi’s air force. Explosions were heard in Tripoli late Wednesday.

Libyans inspect damage to sheds full of missile, training and maintenance equipment made by overnight cruise missile strikes at the Libyan Navy’s Abu Sitr base on March 22, 2011 in Tripoli, Libya. (Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

9 a.m. ET | Despite a five-day-old no-fly zone enforced by an international coalition, forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi appeared to escalate their campaign against opposition groups in the cities of Misrata and Ajdabiya, unleashing heavy weaponry and shelling rebel positions. Government troops have an advantage in terms of equipment and supplies, and rebel militias hope the presence of international air strikes will check the advance of Gadhafi’s military.

Misrata, in the western part of the country, was held by rebel militias but has been under heavy attack by government troops. Ajdabiya, to the east, is strategically important as the path to the eastern portion of the country held by rebel troops, including their de facto capital of Benghazi.

On Tuesday night, Libyan state television broadcast images of Gadhafi speaking at what it said was a site hit by a missile, where he said his forces would be victorious despite the air campaign. “Libyan people, you have to live now, this time of glory, this is a time of glory that we are living,” he said.

NATO began ship patrols in the Mediterranean to enforce the U.N. arms embargo. Though the United States has been involved in early missions, President Obama has insisted that leadership of military enforcement will be handed over as soon as possible.

NATO leaders have been meeting to iron out the division of responsibilities. France and Britain were vocal supporters of the no-fly zone, but France has indicated it wants to minimize NATO’s ownership of the campaign for fear of sending the wrong message and has pushed for more involvement from Arab nations. Thus far, only Qatar has been willing to send aircraft to assist.

President Obama and military officials have been quick to defend the U.S. effort, saying they have a clearly-defined goal of protecting civilians. In remarks to reporters during a trip to El Salvador, President Obama said: “In Benghazi, a city of 700,000 people, you had the prospect of Gaddafi’s forces carrying out his orders to show no mercy. That could have resulted in catastrophe in that town.”