US role in Libya to diminish as allies join; fighter jet downed

Senior U.S. defense officials said Tuesday the number of coalition strikes in Libya will fall as more of the regime’s air defenses are destroyed.

U.S. officials also said the number of U.S. combat flights would continue to decline as more nations’ aircraft — including those of critical Arab allies — join the fight.

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Statements that the U.S. role in the multinational effort in Libya will diminish came as the White House continued to come under criticism for using force there without congressional approval.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), the Democratic maverick who has run for the White House on a liberal platform, said Tuesday that when Congress resumes next week, he would offer a measure to prevent the Pentagon from spending money on the Libyan mission.

There were also signs Tuesday of a split in the international coalition enforcing the U.N.-backed no-fly zone over Libya. Several nations, including Russia, China and Brazil, called for an immediate ceasefire, according to The New York Times.

And the coalition campaign suffered its first operational blemish when a U.S. warplane went down near the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

The Pentagon said an F-15 fighter jet crashed overnight while helping enforce the no-fly zone. Officials are investigating what went wrong with the Boeing-made jet, but said an “equipment malfunction” appeared to have been the cause.

Both crew members ejected from the plane and were rescued.

Traveling in Moscow, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the number of coalition air operations should decline "as we are successful in suppressing the air defenses,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

That will happen, he said, “I assume in the next few days.”

Lawmakers continued to pound President Obama for his decision to use military force without first seeking congressional approval. As a presidential candidate, several critics noted, Obama had said such approval was necessary.

"While the administration assures us that that the U.S. will hand-off its lead role to coalition partners within days, we have not been notified of long-term plans or goals following initial air strikes in the country," Kucinich wrote in a letter to House members announcing his measure to defund the operation. "The timeline the president gave to Congress was summarized with one word: 'limited.' "

The liberal lawmaker intends to introduce the measure as an amendment to the next federal budget bill the chamber takes up.

Republicans and Democrats alike, particularly in the House, have called the president’s decision to intervene militarily without a congressional green light unconstitutional. They also contend Obama and his team have failed to clearly define U.S. goals for the mission.

Obama defined the mission as “limited” in scope and duration — with no ground troops — and said he was within his authority to call for it.

Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa, told reporters during a midday briefing Tuesday that American and coalition forces have done substantial damage to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s air force.

“I do not expect that his air force will have … an impact on what the coalition is doing,” Locklear, also commander of Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, said via telephone.

The admiral painted a sketch of a fixed-wing Libyan military aircraft fleet that was sub-par even before U.S. and coalition warships, fighter jets and bomber aircraft began pounding the country on Saturday.

Gadhafi was operating a combat helicopter fleet “in the several dozens,” rather than “large numbers,” Locklear said.

A top goal for the early days of the no-fly zone operations was to substantially downgrade Gadhafi’s remaining air assets, “and we believe we have done that,” Locklear told reporters.

U.S. and NATO officials have yet to determine how the envisioned “coalition command” that they say will take over the lead of the mission soon will be constructed.

The task force commander said he has not been notified of any developments on establishing that kind of organization, but said it would be no problem for operational forces because they practice such command shifts routinely.

An official with the U.S. Africa Command told The Hill that Qatar has formally informed command leaders they will contribute aircraft to the coalition operation.

That makes Qatar the first Arab nation to do so. The announcement comes several days after Arab League officials slammed the intensity of the U.S. and coalition bombing campaign — even after calling for it.

Locklear said U.S. and coalition commanders continue to keep “all options” on the table for using force against Gadhafi’s forces to enforce the no-fly zone and protect civilians, as is the mandate under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.

—Daniel Strauss contributed to this article.