Operation Odyssey Dawn was launched on Saturday with a five-nation Western coalition force targeting Col. Gadhafi’s air defense systems and armored military vehicles.
But as Tomahawk cruise missiles thundered from U.S. and British battleships off the coast of Libya, and fighter jets soared over Gadhafi’s surface-to-air missile systems, the only missing element was an Arab face to the mission.
The United States, alongside its international allies, have put much effort in framing the operation as one consisting of a broad international coalition, with support and participation of Arab nations. The picture of another Western invasion of a Muslim state, and another U.S.-lead war in the region, is something Washington has been studiously trying to avoid.
But so far, the Arab face to the mission has been painfully absent. On Sunday, the head of the Arab League, representing 22 Arab nations, criticized the air strikes against Libya. According to Amr Moussa, Arab League leader from Egypt, the operations in Libya has gone beyond what the League endorsed days earlier.
Moussa’s statement may puzzle many in the West, since it is hard to imagine that the league, when it voted in favor of implementing a no-fly zone above Libya last Saturday, didn’t realize it would require bombing missions to disable Gadhafi’s air defense systems on the ground.
Arab League support for the no-fly zone had been a precondition for the U.S. and other nations to even consider putting forward a United Nations Security Council Resolution on intervention in Libya. The U.N. resolution adopted last Thursday was a broad one, authorizing the use of “all necessary measures” to protect the lives of civilians in Libya. The resolution doesn’t rule out the use of ground troops, and only rules out an occupation of the country.
Qatar and the United Arab Emirates said on Sunday they will deploy air support once the second phase of operation Odyssey Dawn goes into effect, which is to enforce the no-fly zone. However, their contribution to the overall operation is expected to be small.
At present, the United States is in command of the operation. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested on Sunday that leadership might be transferred either to Britain and France or to NATO in the coming days. Britain and France had been the main proponents of the U.N. resolution.
According to Gates, Arab nations are sensitive to operations being carried out under a NATO flag. "I think there is a sensitivity on the part of the Arab League to being seen to be operating under a NATO umbrella. And so the question is if there is a way we can work out NATO’s command and control machinery without it being a NATO mission and without a NATO flag, and so on," Gates said aboard a military aircraft on Sunday, Reuters reported.
Particularly sensitive for Arab nations have been reports of civilian deaths in Libya. Libyan state television reported on Sunday that 64 people were killed in the attacks. According to U.S. officials, there has been no indication of civilian deaths so far.
The coalition forces, consisting of the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Canada, and since Sunday Belgium and Qatar, have indicated they are not willing to go any further at present to support Libyan opposition forces aside from enforcing a no-fly zone. The hope is that this will create enough space for the opposition to change the political situation in the country themselves without foreign help.
Fighter jets have been used to take out tanks and other armored military vehicles belonging to Col. Gadhafi’s forces. In the first strikes, French fighter jets destroyed four tanks and multiple other vehicles on the outskirts of the opposition stronghold of Benghazi on Saturday morning.
On Sunday, Gadhafi’s forces declared its second ceasefire in three days, but it did not change the mission of Odyssey Dawn. "I question anything that Gadhafi calls for. He called a ceasefire and then told his troops to move into Benghazi after he called for a ceasefire," Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the U.S. military's joint staff, said at a press conference at the Pentagon on Sunday.
According to Gortney, the first phase of the operation has been successful with Libya’s air defense capability significantly degraded. Gortney reported that no coalition aircrafts have been hit during the operations.
Throughout the weekend’s strikes, Libyan state television conveyed a defiant message. In Col. Gadhafi's first address to the nation since the intervention against his forces began on Saturday, Gadhafi said via state television that he would open all arms depots and arm all civilians to protect Libya.
In his three-minute speech broadcast live, the Libyan leader described the West's military actions as "an irresponsible act of aggression” and called it a "second crusade" against the Libyan people.
Gadhafi threatened that the intervention would destabilize the whole Mediterranean region. He called on all Arab nations, Muslim nations, and free states of Africa to support the "heroic people of Libya."
“Machine guns, rockets, rifles, [and] bombs have been distributed to every Libyan man and women,” Gadhafi said on state television on Sunday. Saying this era was not the time of organized armies, but the time of the people.