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U.S. shifting command to NATO for airstrikes against Gadhafi forces

NATO will assume command of all aerial operations in Libya from the U.S.-led force that has been conducting airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi's forces, officials said Sunday.

NATO jets Sunday had already begun enforcing the no-fly zone, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced. Diplomats said the full transfer of authority would take several days.

"NATO allies have decided to take on the whole military operation in Libya under the U.N. Security Council resolution," Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement. "NATO will implement all aspects of the U.N. resolution. Nothing more, nothing less."

The North Atlantic Council -- the alliance's top body -- took two hours to approve a plan to expand a previously agreed mission to enforce the U.N. arms embargo and no-fly zone. It agreed to protect civilians from attack -- which effectively means bombing Gadhafi's forces if they are threatening to harm the civilian population.

The United Nations authorized the operation after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power.

After eight days of strikes on Libyan targets, Washington is eager to quickly hand off responsibility for the air offensive to the alliance. President Obama and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have both said that American command of the military operations in Libya would last only a few days.

The airstrikes have already tipped the balance away from Gadhafi's regular military to the lightly armed rebels, although the two sides remain at stalemate in key cities.

A Canadian three-star general, Charles Bouchard, will be in charge of all NATO operations. He will report to an American admiral, Samuel Locklear, commander of NATO's Allied Joint Force Command Naples.

In response to NATO taking command, the Pentagon has reduced the amount of naval firepower arrayed against Gadhafi's forces, officials said Sunday.

The move, not yet publicly announced, reinforces the White House message of a diminishing U.S. role -- a central point in Obama's national address tonight on Libya. The White House booked Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on three Sunday news shows to promote the administration's case ahead of the speech, which is set for 7:30 p.m. EDT.

Gates and Clinton stressed the administration's message that the U.S. role in the mission will shrink, illustrating that it's possible for the U.S. military to partner with others without always being the leader.

At least one of the five Navy ships and submarines that have launched dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libyan targets from positions in the Mediterranean Sea has left the area, three defense officials said Sunday. They spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive military movements.

That still leaves what officials believe is sufficient naval firepower off Libya's coast, and it coincides with NATO's decision to take over command and control of the entire Libya operation.

In Libya on Sunday, international air raids targeted Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte for the first time as rebels quickly closed in on the regime stronghold, a formidable obstacle that must be overcome for government opponents to reach the capital Tripoli.

A heavy bombardment of Tripoli also began after nightfall, with at least nine loud explosions and anti-aircraft fire heard, an Associated Press reporter in the city said.

Earlier in the day, rebels regained two key oil complexes along the coastal highway that runs from the opposition-held eastern half of the country toward Sirte and beyond that, to the capital. The coastal oil complexes at Ras Lanouf and Brega were responsible for a large chunk of Libya's 1.5 million barrels of daily exports, which have all but stopped since the uprising that began Feb. 15 and was inspired by the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt.

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