By John T. Bennett and Jamie Klatell - 03/24/11 10:35 PM EDT
NATO countries have agreed to take over enforcement of the no-fly zone above Libya, U.S. and NATO officials said Thursday.
"Today we are taking the next step," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. "We have agreed, along with our NATO allies, to transition command and control for the no-fly zone over Libya to NATO."
Clinton, the first U.S. official to comment on the agreement, said all 28 allied countries have agreed to authorize NATO to protect Libyan civilians, which was called for in the U.N. Security Council resolution.
Clinton said six days of U.S.-led operations have prevented a humanitarian disaster in Libya. "The international coalition is in control of the skies above Libya and humanitarian relief is beginning to reach people who need it," Clinton said.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday evening on CNN that the alliance has yet to decide whether it will take on "that broader responsibility," meaning the entire operation.
The statement further clouded a murky political situation for the Obama administration, which since the beginning of the military campaign on Saturday has emphasized that U.S. leadership would transition to other forces.
The administration has come under criticism from members of Congress over the operation, with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) saying the White House had failed to clearly set forth the goals for the operation. Boehner also questioned the costs of the operation.
A classified briefing for House members will be held Wednesday.
Clinton's announcement came after the Pentagon earlier on Thursday emphasized the increasing role allied militaries are playing in Libya.
Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, said once the U.S. military hands off control to the coalition and other nations’ aircraft and crews arrive, the number of American sorties will gradually decline.
Gortney briefed reporters just as reports emerged from Turkey that Ankara’s demands had been met and NATO would take over command of the Libya mission.
“Slightly more than half” of the 350 aircraft in the theater are non-U.S. planes, he said, and this number is “growing.”
Gortney said allied nations already are doing more and more as part of the Libya mission.
Of the 38 allied naval vessels participating, 26 are from coalition militaries and 12 are U.S. ships, according to a chart displayed on a large screen behind the Joint Staff director.
The chart also displayed the flags of nations with military personnel and platforms that are a part of the fight against embattled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s forces.
Gortney called a command hand-off “hard work,” but said Pentagon officials are hopeful it can occur as soon as Saturday.
Officials must construct a command-and-control structure similar to the one in place now, which military officials feel is working well, Gortney said.
The White House praised the decision by the United Arab Emirates to commit a dozen fighter jets to the mission. Showing that Arab nations support the military action, which has been largely carried out by the U.S., France and Great Britain, has been greatly important to the administration.
"This critical participation by the UAE further underscores the broad, international support for the protection of the Libyan people," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
The UAE will send six American-made F-16s and six French-built Mirage aircraft, according to a statement issued by the nation's Washington embassy.
As the U.S. military hands control of the Libyan no-fly zone mission to a NATO-led command organization, American aircraft will continue flying the bulk of combat flights, Gortney said.
Since the outset of the bombing and no-fly zone campaign on Saturday, U.S. fighter jets and other aircraft have carried the load. The percentage of coalition sorties conducted by American planes has stabilized at around 70 percent in recent days, according to Pentagon figures.
That is expected to come down “over time,” Gortney said.
Once NATO takes over and its aircraft begin flying more sorties, the U.S. will fall back, focusing its efforts on providing aerial refueling tankers, intelligence-gathering aircraft, satellite cover and electronic jamming systems, Pentagon and administration officials say.
But American fighters will continue to compose part of the coalition “strike package,” he said.
While coalition commanders have sent messages to Gadhafi’s forces instructing them how to act in order not to be targeted by allied airstrikes, Gortney described a mostly defiant Libyan military force.
“Stop fighting. Stop killing your own people,” coalition officials have told Gadhafi’s troops.
But many have not obeyed those instructions, and the coalition continues efforts to take out those units.
The allied forces, however, are not striking inside Libyan cities, he said, due to concerns about civilian casualties.
That adds a degree of difficulty for allied strikes to reach all Libyan military units.
This story was last updated at 10:39 p.m.