Reporting from Washington— Frustrated at their inability to break the military deadlock in Libya and to stop the shelling of civilian areas, NATO commanders are expanding their air war by launching strikes against military command facilities and other regime buildings used by Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and his top aides.
NATO officials said the escalation, supported by armed U.S. Predator drones, is meant to sever Kadafi’s communication and supply links with army units battling the rebellion based in eastern Libya. But privately, some NATO officials say the goal is to strike directly at the pillars of the regime, including Kadafi, in the heart of Tripoli.
“This is a shift, absolutely,” a senior NATO officer said Tuesday. “We’re picking up attacks on these command-and-control facilities. If he happens to be in one of those buildings, all the better.”
U.S. and other NATO officials, however, denied that the stepped-up campaign, which included strikes this week on a state TV facility and on one of Kadafi’s residential compounds, both in Tripoli, was aimed at killing Kadafi.
“We are not targeting him specifically, but we do consider command-and-control targets to be legitimate targets wherever we find them,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday after meeting with British Defense Minister Liam Fox at the Pentagon.
Fox said there are growing signs that Kadafi’s hold on power was weakening.
“We have received reports of underage soldiers and foreign mercenaries being captured; this underlines the regime’s inability to rely on its own security forces,” Fox said. “These are the tactics of an increasingly desperate and weak regime.”
Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, the Canadian commander of the operation, told reporters in a video briefing from his headquarters in Naples, Italy, that the latest airstrikes were “not about individuals” and “not about regime change.”
Other NATO officers said that, even if Kadafi isn’t killed, bombing the facilities that he and his security services use could spook him and persuade him to negotiate a transfer of power or flee into exile.
NATO’s ability to identify Kadafi’s command facilities increased with the deployment last week of the Predator drones, which can circle overhead for as long as 20 hours, beaming live video to intelligence analysts responsible for selecting targets.
Kadafi also has to worry that the drones, which are armed with Hellfire missiles, could be used to track and attack his location.
The U.S. has supplied NATO with a Global Hawk drone as well, which can fly even longer missions than the Predator but is unarmed.
The U.S. has largely stopped using attack planes to conduct strikes in Libya but is providing intelligence and surveillance aircraft for the mission, a role that could grow as NATO seeks additional targets.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is also intercepting cellphone conversations and other communications to find facilities used by the regime’s inner circle, senior NATO officers said.
There was no sign that NATO was considering other high-profile targets — for example, power stations, bridges and other infrastructure — that NATO attacked in previous conflicts, such as the 1999 air campaign over Kosovo and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Some outside analysts questioned whether the new strategy would be enough to force Kadafi’s ouster or would simply prolong the war.
“It’s fraught with danger,” said David A. Deptula, a retired U.S. Air Force general, of NATO’s move to expand its targets. “Slowly ratcheting up pressure on Kadafi in an attempt to force him to abdicate, but without clearly articulating that as a goal, is going to be difficult to achieve.”
The widening of the campaign also could prove controversial within NATO, which has been badly divided over the tactics and goals of the Libyan operation.
President Obama and the leaders of France and Britain have called for Kadafi to step down, but other members of the alliance, including Turkey, oppose making the overthrow of Kadafi an aim of the military campaign.
The decision to widen the air war comes in response to growing concern in Washington and other NATO capitals that hitting Kadafi’s military in the field has not stopped his forces from killing civilians in rebel-held areas.
Heavily armed forces loyal to Kadafi have besieged the port city of Misurata for weeks, pounding residential areas with rockets and mortars that have killed hundreds of people despite airstrikes on their positions.
At the same time, NATO pilots have been hampered by their success. After hundreds of Kadafi’s tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed, many Libyan troops have made themselves more difficult to detect by shedding their uniforms, moving in civilian trucks and hiding their mortars and artillery.
An airstrike Monday on a broadcasting facility in Tripoli, which briefly knocked Libya’s state television off the air, was the first sign of the new target list.
U.S. officials said the attack on what could be considered a civilian facility was authorized because Kadafi’s commanders use state TV to transmit messages and propaganda to supporters across the country. NATO warplanes also struck a compound in Tripoli that Kadafi has used as an official residence, the third attack on that facility since the air war began.
Asked whether the bombing of Kadafi’s compound was an attempt to kill the Libyan leader, Bouchard said the facility was a “military compound in which there are various houses and residences” as well as “command-and-control nodes throughout.”
Though Bouchard said he did not want to reveal his “playbook” in detail, he said the airstrikes would focus on “command-and-control nodes that are utilized to order military personnel to engage the civilian population.”