By Jamie Klatell - 03/20/11 04:53 PM EDT
A day after U.S.-led strikes began against Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in Libya, an international coalition has taken control of the skies and pushed back the attack on the rebel-held city of Benghazi, Adm. Mike Mullen said Sunday.
The president’s chief military adviser said the no-fly zone called for in a United Nations Security Council resolution is “effectively” in place over Libya.
"I would say that the no-fly zone we were tasked to put in place is now in place," Mullen, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said on “Fox News Sunday,” one of five interviews he did Sunday morning.
While describing the action as "very limited," Mullen said the coalition strikes did go further than establishing a no-fly zone.
"Some of the engagements yesterday involved hitting his forces on the ground in the vicinity of Benghazi,” he said. “Clearly the objective will be to attack those forces and ensure they are not able to attack the innocent civilians, which he was doing as recently as yesterday in Benghazi."
U.S. officials have been careful to note that the military action is coming from a “broad coalition” and operating under a U.N. mandate, one called for by the Arab League as well as European nations. (The head of the Arab League on Sunday reportedly criticized the international strikes, saying they had caused civilian deaths.)
The force, however, is led by U.S. Gen. Carter Ham of Africa Command, and much of the muscle behind the initial action is from American equipment.
According to the U.S. Africa Command, two U.S. Navy ships, three submarines and 15 U.S. Air Force aircraft — including B-2 bombers — have launched strikes against Libya since the attacks began on Saturday.
Mullen said the leadership role will shift to other coalition partners.
"I would expect us to pass the leadership of the military operation to ... those in the coalition," he said. "The United States in particular would support with unique capabilities, which could include jamming and intelligence support ... tanker support for the planes, those kinds of things."
The Libyan leadership for its part sounded surprised by the strikes and promised to fight back.
"Yesterday we were surprised that, you know, the Americans and the British and the French attacked Libya, attacked five cities. Terrorized people, and especially children, women, were so afraid yesterday," Saif Gadhafi, the Libyan president’s son, said on “This Week.” "So it was big surprise that finally President Obama, we thought he was a good man and friend of Arab world, is bombing Libya."
"It is now necessary to open the stores and arm all the masses with all types of weapons to defend the independence, unity and honor of Libya," Gadhafi said in an audio message broadcast on state television hours after the strikes began, according to media reports.
President Obama announced Saturday he had “authorized the armed forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya."
Speaking from Brazil during a five-day overseas trip, he said military intervention was "not our first choice," but that the U.S. "cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his own people there will be no mercy."
Mullen said Sunday the goal was not to remove Gadhafi but to halt the violence being inflicted by him on Libyan citizens.
Several senators took to the airwaves on Sunday to support the U.S. involvement in Libya, but said it came late and might not be enough.
"He waited too long. There is no doubt about it in my mind, but it is what it is," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” "Now, a no-fly zone is not enough. There needs to be other efforts made."
Speaking on CBS's “Face The Nation,” Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it seems regime change is in store for Libya. But he questioned how that objective would be achieved with the limited mission by the U.S. military.
"How do you do that? The president has been very clear on that. No ground troops. No American boots on the ground," Lugar said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was more direct.
"I am very worried we are taking a back seat rather than a leadership role," he said on “Fox News Sunday.” "Isolate, strangle and replace this man. That should be our goal."
While those senators and the president said regime change must occur, Gadhafi’s son said his father had no intention of letting go of power.
"Step aside why?" Saif Gadhafi asked on ABC. "Again, there is a big misunderstanding. The whole country is united against the armed militia and the terrorists.”
Mullen stressed the White House has so far handed the Pentagon's "limited objectives" that include staving off a humanitarian crisis, opening "corridors" so humanitarian aid can be moved into the nation and establishing and maintaining the no-fly zone.
Gadhafi is going to "have to make some choices about ... the future" in the next few days, Mullen said. “The whole idea is put as much pressure on this guy, so he doesn't continue to kill his own people,” Mullen added.
—John T. Bennett, Kevin Bogardus and Jordan Fabian contributed to this story.