WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama categorically ruled out a land invasion to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi Wednesday as coalition forces launched a fifth day of air strikes against government military targets in the North African nation.
And Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he can't predict how long the no-fly zone operation will last, but that the U.S. could turn over control of it as early as Saturday.
Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, a top U.S. officer in the campaign in Libya, said international forces were attacking government troops that have been storming population centers.
And from Ajdabiya to Misrata, the coalition's "targeting priorities" included Gadhafi's mechanized forces, mobile surface-to-air missile sites and lines of communications that supply "their beans and their bullets," Hueber said.
Earlier, officials said missiles from F-15 fighter jets destroyed Gadhafi missile sites around Tripoli and that international forces also struck a government ammunition depot outside Misrata and ground forces outside Ajdabiya. Residents in Misrata said coalition attacks forced government troops to withdraw tanks there.
Obama was asked in an interview with the Spanish-language network Univision if a land invasion would be out of the question in the event air strikes fail to dislodge Gadhafi from power. Obama replied that it was "absolutely" out of the question.
Asked what the exit strategy is, he didn't lay out a vision for ending the international action, but rather said: "The exit strategy will be executed this week in the sense that we will be pulling back from our much more active efforts to shape the environment."
"We'll still be in a support role, we'll still be providing jamming, and intelligence and other assets that are unique to us, but this is an international effort that's designed to accomplish the goals that were set out in the Security Council resolution," Obama said.
Obama had said last week that he had no intention of sending ground combat troops into Libya, and his statements in the interview served to reinforce that point.
As the air war in Libya achieves some of its early objectives, such as grounding Gadhafi's air force, the administration is looking for a quick way out of the front-line role it has assumed in an international operation that has yet to gain the robust participation of Arab nations that Washington wanted.
NATO warships have started patrolling off Libya's coast to enforce the U.N. arms embargo, as the alliance appeared set to assume responsibility for the no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians.
But civilians in major cities like Misrata are still bearing the burden of clashes with pro-Gadhafi forces, raising the prospect of stalemate and doubt about whether the Libyan leader can be defeated outright.
Obama was returning to Washington on Wednesday a few hours earlier than planned. In El Salvador on Tuesday he painted an optimistic picture of the international military operation and said he had "absolutely no doubt" that control could be shifted from the U.S. to other coalition members within days.
"When this transition takes place, it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone," the president said earlier at a news conference. "It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily enforcing the arms embargo. That's precisely what the other nations are going to do."