'U.S. troops could go to Libya': Army general who led American forces opens the door for ground deployment

The United States may consider sending troops into Libya to aid rebel forces, according to the general who led the military mission until NATO took over.

Army General Carter Ham added the Libyan operation was largely stalemated now and was more likely to remain that way since America has transferred control to NATO.

The comments are the strongest indication yet that the U.S. army's top brass are considering the possible use of American ground troops to oust Colonel Gaddafi from the country.

Speaking yesterday, General Ham said NATO had done an effective job in an increasingly complex combat situation. But he noted that, in a new tactic, Gaddafi's forces were making airstrikes more difficult by staging military forces and vehicles near civilian areas such as schools and mosques.

The comments came as Ham spoke at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Asked if the U.S. would provide troops, Ham said, 'I suspect there might be some consideration of that. My personal view at this point would be that that's probably not the ideal circumstance, again for the regional reaction that having American boots on the ground would entail.'

The hint at troop deployment flies in the face of President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly stated there will be no U.S. troops on the ground in Libya, although there are reports of small CIA teams in the country.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told lawmakers last week that there would be no American ground troops in Libya 'as long as I am in this job.'

Ham disclosed that the United States is providing some strike aircraft to the NATO operation that do not need to go through the special approval process recently established.

The powerful side-firing AC-130 gunship is available to NATO commanders, he said.

Other strike aircraft, including fighters and the A-10 Thunderbolt, which can provide close air support for ground forces, must be requested through U.S. European Command and approved by top U.S. leaders, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Ham said that process is quick, and other defense officials have said it can take about a day for the U.S. to approve the request and move the aircraft in from bases in Europe.

Ham said recent bad weather and threats from Gaddafi's mobile surface-to-air missile systems hampered efforts to use aircraft like the AC-130 and the A-10 to provide close air support for friendly ground forces.

Since the U.S. handed off the strike mission to NATO, U.S. planes account for only 15 percent of NATO planes now doing those air attacks, Ham said.

The comments came after another NATO air strike slammed into a rebel combat convoy, killing at least five fighters and sharply boosting anger among Libyan anti-government forces.

The mistaken hit is the second bungled mission in a week blamed on the military alliance.

Thursday's attack - outside the strategic oil port of Brega - brought fresh questions about coordination between NATO and the patchwork of rebel militias.

Tensions between the rebels and NATO were flaring even before the latest accident, with the fighters criticising the alliance for doing too little to help them.

A rebel commander described the attack as a likely NATO accident, but said it would be a 'bigger mistake' if it was waged by Gaddafi's pilots and exposed holes in NATO's efforts to ground Libyan warplanes.

In a sign of the hair-trigger tensions along the front, thousands of civilians and fighters raced out of the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya in eastern Libya after reports that Gaddafi's forces gained ground in the chaos after the bombing.

'We don't want NATO any more' cried fighter Basit bin Nasser. Another yelled: "Down, down with NATO.'

In Brussels, NATO did not directly acknowledge responsibility for a blundered air strike on the rebels, but noted that the area where the attack occurred was 'unclear and fluid with mechanised weapons travelling in all directions.'

In a statement NATO said: 'What remains clear is that NATO will continue to uphold the U.N. mandate and strike forces that can potentially cause harm to the civilian population of Libya.'

But NATO faces the same challenges to avoid friendly fire deaths as commanders in other wide-ranging air missions such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The rebels lack the high-grade communications and surveillance systems to coordinate with NATO planners and pilots.

And from above, both sides may appear very similar.

Rebels used seized tanks and vehicles from the Libyan military. The pro-Gaddafi forces, meanwhile, are increasingly mixing into civilian areas and adopting the guerilla-style appearance of their foes.

A NATO official said there is growing frustration with the rebels' perception that NATO is acting as their proxy air force.

The U.N. mandate calls only for international air power to enforce a no-fly zone and prevent attacks on civilians - although Gaddafi ground forces remain a primary target.

'We're trying to get messages back to them about what we're doing and what we're trying to achieve,' said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under standing NATO regulations.

Last week, NATO took control over the international airstrikes that began March 19 as a U.S.-led mission. The air strikes thwarted Gaddafi efforts to crush the rebellion he has ruled for more than four decades, but the rebels remain outnumbered and out gunned and have had difficulty in making headway into government-held territory.

[Source: Mail Online, London, 08Apr11]

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