Gen.: U.S. troops not ideal, but may be considered in Libya

Libyan rebels riding on the back of an armed pickup truck retreat east towards Benghazi from Ajdabiya, Libya, April 7, 2011. AP

WASHINGTON - The United States may consider sending troops into Libya with a possible international ground force that could aid the rebels, according to the general who led the military mission until NATO took over.

Army Gen. Carter Ham also told lawmakers Thursday that added American participation would not be ideal, and ground troops could erode the international coalition and make it more difficult to get Arab support for operations in Libya.

Ham said the operation was largely stalemated now and was more likely to remain that way since America has transferred control to NATO.

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He said NATO has done an effective job in an increasingly complex combat situation. But he noted that, in a new tactic, Muammar Qaddafi's forces are making airstrikes more difficult by staging military forces and vehicles near civilian areas such as schools and mosques.

The use of an international ground force is a possible plan to bolster rebels fighting forces loyal to the Libyan leader, Ham said 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."

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President Barack Obama has said repeatedly 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 Qaddafi'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. He says those conditions contributed to the stalemate.

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.

Meanwhile, rebel fighters claimed NATO airstrikes blasted their forces Thursday in another apparent mistake that sharply escalated anger about coordination with the military alliance in efforts to cripple Libyan forces. At least two rebels were killed and more than a dozen injured, a doctor said.

The attack - near the front lines outside the eastern oil port of Brega - would be the second accidental NATO strike against rebel forces in less than a week and brought cries of outrage from fighters struggling against Muammar Qaddafi's larger and more experienced military.

"Down, down with NATO," shouted one fighter as dozens of rebel vehicles raced eastward from the front toward the rebel-held city of Ajbadiya.

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