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The World

March 20, 2011

US pounds Libyan air defenses, assesses damage

WASHINGTON — Hours after U.S. and British ships pounded Libya with precision missiles, American officials are eager to confirm that the damage was extensive enough to allow air patrols to protect civilians being targeted by embattled strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

Military officials said that as Sunday dawned in Libya, satellites would give commanders a better view of the expected destruction along the country's coastline. U.S. and British ships launched the first phase of the missile assault Saturday, raining 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles onto more than 20 radar systems, communications centers and surface-to-air missile sites.

While the U.S. was leading the initial onslaught, officials made it clear that America would quickly step back into a supporting role, possibly within days, and shift command to its European and Arab partners.

Speaking from Brazil where he was kicking off a five-day Latin America visit, President Barack Obama made clear the U.S. reluctance to take on another war.

"This is not an outcome the U.S. or any of our partners sought," Obama said. But, he said he was convinced it was necessary to save the lives of civilians, particularly in and around the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. He added: "We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy."

The Pentagon was in 24-hour battle mode. Military leaders, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, scrambled over the past several days to coordinate the attacks with commanders and reach out to military counterparts in the region.

A defense official who spoke on grounds of anonymity because of the ongoing operation said officials believed that because of the precision targeting of the strikes, the damage to Gadhafi's military establishment was significant and substantial.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates was conferring with Obama and his national security team, as they reviewed the steady flow of intelligence information and operations updates. Gates had planned to fly to Russia Saturday but delayed his departure for a day so that he could be in Washington to monitor the operation's launch.

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