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Libya mission seems clouded by confusion

“We have no indication that Gadhafi's forces are adhering to United Nations Resolution 1973,” which authorized the establishment of a no-fly zone and demanded that government forces pull back from population centers, said Hueber, chief of staff for U.S. operations. “Our intelligence today is there's no indication that Gadhafi's forces are pulling back.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates no doubt reflected the views of many military commanders when he warned weeks ago that establishing a no-fly zone was a big, complicated operation tantamount to an act of war — and one with questionable viability.

Gates, visiting Cairo on Wednesday, said he couldn't predict when the international military enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya might end — but suggested the U.S. could turn over control of the operation as soon as Saturday.

For now at least, the U.S. remains the ad hoc boss of the operation now in its fifth day, with no certainty about who will take over or when. Talks are continuing in Brussels, headquarters of the North American Treaty Organization.

The U.S. wants NATO to take the command and control lead in overseeing coalition forces. U.S., European, Arab and African officials have also been invited to a meeting in London next Tuesday to discuss outstanding political and logistical issues.

Obama has ruled out U.S. troops on the ground, and did again Wednesday in an interview with the Spanish-language network Univision. Wrapping up a Latin American trip, Obama said a land invasion should the air strikes fail to dislodge Gadhafi was “absolutely” out of the question.

Asked about an exit strategy, Obama did not lay out a vision for ending the international action. “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,” he said.

“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,” he said.

Many strategic issues have yet to be resolved. For instance, if the rebels are able to retake the military offensive, will the coalition provide air support as they seize territory or attack government troops?

“Nothing will be more dangerous to the effectiveness of the coalition's cause than not agreeing on why we are all there and what we intend to do,” suggests former U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urges patience. The biggest success of the operation so far — “a humanitarian crisis that thankfully didn't happen (in Benghazi)” — isn't getting enough attention, she told reporters on Wednesday.

Still, she acknowledged, “Challenges remain so long as Gadhafi continues to direct his forces to attack his own people.”

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