The United States on Sunday claimed initial success two days into an assault on Libya that included some of the heaviest firepower in the American arsenal -- including long-range B-2 stealth bombers -- but American officials said Sunday it was too early to define the international military campaign's endgame.
The top U.S. military officer suggested that Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi might stay in power in spite of the military assault aimed at protecting civilians, calling into question the larger objective of an end to Gadhafi's erratic 42-year rule. Other top U.S. officials have suggested that a weakened and isolated Gadhafi could be ripe for a coup.
A second wave of attacks, mainly from American fighters and bombers, targeted Libyan ground forces and air defenses, following an opening barrage Saturday of sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the U.S. expects to turn control of the mission over to a coalition -- probably headed either by the French and British or by NATO -- "in a matter of days."
Late Sunday, however, NATO's top decision-making body failed to agree on a plan to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, although it did approve a military plan to implement a U.N. arms embargo.
At the Pentagon, Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, staff director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference that the back-to-back assaults Saturday and Sunday had inflicted heavy damage. They largely silenced Gadhafi's air defenses, blunted his army's drive on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and confused his forces.
"We judge these strikes to have been very effective in significantly degrading the regime's air defense capability," Gortney said. "We believe his forces are under significant stress and suffering from both isolation and a good deal of confusion."
Gortney's assessment suggested that further strikes on the scale of Saturday's heavy assault with cruise missiles may not be needed, although he did not rule out further attacks. the admiral said that Gadhafi himself is not a target but that he could not guarantee the strongman's safety.
Inside Gadhafi's huge Tripoli compound, an administration building was hit and badly damaged late Sunday. An Associated Press photographer at the scene said half of the round, three-story building was knocked down, smoke was rising from it and pieces of a cruise missile were scattered around the scene.
The systems targeted most closely were Libya's SA-5 surface-to-air missiles, Russian-made weaponry that could pose a threat to allied aircraft many miles off the Libyan coastline. Libya has a range of other air defense weaponry, including portable surface-to-air missiles that are more difficult to eliminate by bombing.
Sunday's attacks, carried out by a range of U.S. aircraft -- including Air Force stealth bombers as well as Marine Harrier jets flying from an amphibious assault ship in the Mediterranean -- demonstrated the predominance of U.S. firepower in the international coalition. By striking Libyan ground forces, coalition forces also showed that they are going beyond the most frequently discussed goal of establishing a no-fly zone over the country.
A military official said the B-2s flew 25 hours in a round trip from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and dropped 45 2,000-pound bombs.
U.S. missiles and warplanes were clearly in the lead Saturday and Sunday, but Gates said the plan remains for the U.S. to step back once the threat from the Libyan military is reduced.
President Obama, traveling in Brazil, held a conference call Sunday with top national security officials, including Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, the U.S. general running the air campaign.
Obama also called King Abdullah of Jordan on Sunday to emphasize the importance of a broad international effort in the Libyan campaign and to discuss the unrest in Bahrain, said national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon.
"We've seen the people of Libya take a courageous stand against a regime determined to brutalize its own citizens," Obama said. "No one can say for certain how this change will end, but I do know that change is not something that we should fear. When young people insist that the currents of history are on the move, the burdens of the past can be washed away."
The prospect of Gadhafi remaining in control of at least a portion of the country raises questions about how far the Obama administration and its European and other partners are willing to go with military force. Clinton said Saturday that although ousting Gadhafi is not an explicit goal of the campaign, his departure might be hastened as the conflict continues. Gadhafi has ruled Libya for more than 40 years.
Clinton said enforcement of the U.N. Security Council resolution that called on Gadhafi to cease firing on his own people will "make a new environment" in which people close to Gadhafi might turn against him.
"The opposition is largely led by those who defected from the Gadhafi regime or who formerly served it, and it is certainly to be wished for that there will be even more such defections, that people will put the future of Libya and the interests of the Libyan people above their service to Colonel Gadhafi," she said.