Washington - NATO planners say the allies are stepping up attacks on palaces, headquarters, communications centers and other prominent institutions supporting the Libyan government, a shift of targets that is intended to weaken Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s grip on power and frustrate his forces in the field.
Officials in Europe and in Washington said that the strikes were meant to reduce the government’s ability to harm civilians by eliminating, link by link, the command, communications and supply chains required for sustaining military operations.
The broadening of the alliance’s targets comes at a time when the rebels and the government in Libya have been consolidating their positions along more static front lines, raising concerns of a prolonged stalemate. Although it is too soon to assess the results of the shift, a NATO official said on Tuesday that the alliance was watching closely for early signs, like the recent reports of desertions from the Libyan Army.
Strikes on significant bulwarks of Colonel Qaddafi’s power over recent days included bombing his residential compound in the heart of the capital, Tripoli — an array of bunkers that are also home to administrative offices and a military command post — as well as knocking state television briefly off the air.
If the new approach effectively cripples Colonel Qaddafi’s ability to command his military and visibly erodes his legitimacy, NATO strategists say, it may eventually persuade him to flee into exile — or it might prompt someone in his inner circle to force him out.
The strike on Colonel Qaddafi’s palace and command center was denounced by Libyan officials as an assassination attempt, but alliance officers rejected the suggestion. Pentagon officials said the mission was mounted against a legitimate military target, and noted that it was carried out by F-16 jets from Norway — a nation hardly associated with assassination attempts against foreign leaders.
For now, they said, the armed Predator drone aircraft being used in Libya have been flying over rebel-held towns that are under attack or are threatened by loyalist forces — not over the capital.
But officials acknowledged that the alliance is turning to intelligence based on cellular phone and radio intercepts that might indicate which barracks, buildings or compounds are serving as the government’s hidden command posts.
One NATO officials said that from the Libyans’ point of view, “if you know your main headquarters is going to be hit, you get out and set up an alternative in some nondescript barracks.” Attacks on those hidden military command posts are wholly legitimate, officials said — but there is always a chance that Colonel Qaddafi may be inside one of them.
NATO put its new campaign plan in place over the past week or more, but so far the North African climate has not been cooperative. The alliance had intended to step up airstrikes on prominent institutional targets over this past weekend, but the effort was postponed because of bad weather.
In interviews, NATO officials acknowledged that overall, their air campaign had been frustratingly slow in taking shape after a vigorous start. But they said it was following a carefully planned step-by-step progression spanning the front lines, the middle echelons of the supply chain and now the rear areas, mostly in the capital, where the centralized command and control institutions are located.
The heavy strikes by American cruise missiles and warplanes across the country that began the campaign were aimed mainly at crippling air defense systems so allied combat jets could fly without hindrance. The American military turned over command of the mission to the alliance once it had established a no-fly zone for Libyan warplanes. NATO strikes then focused on the front lines of the fighting, to suppress government forces’ attacks on the rebels and on population centers that were sympathetic to them.
“After the early attacks on his integrated air-defense systems, the next stage was to stop the pro-Qaddafi forces that were schwacking the villages and cities,” one NATO official said. “You have to stop the bleeding. Only then can you treat the wound.”
As the front lines began to stabilize — some senior officials describe the current situation as a stalemate — NATO warplanes tried to smash the supply lines snaking toward government troops in the field, which were calling for ammunition and reinforcements as they besieged rebel-held cities.
More than 80 government arms caches have been destroyed, officials said. Military transport and fuel trucks have been hit. Armored vehicles and rocket launchers have been targets for attacks, including the first by a Predator. But pro-Qaddafi forces began digging in under cover and using unmarked civilian vehicles, making them harder to identify and attack from the air. Meanwhile, the shelling of rebel towns has ebbed and flowed.
So last week, as Western political leaders pronounced that they had no intention of allowing Colonel Qaddafi to remain in power indefinitely, the alliance turned its attention to a target set of static military and government structures.
“Now we are going after his rear echelon,” one NATO official said. “We are going after his ability to command and control his forces — his headquarters, his command posts, his communications — all those things that allow him to coordinate his attacks at the front.”
Military officials privately acknowledge that removing Colonel Qaddafi from power is the desired secondary effect of striking at state television and other symbols of his authoritarian rule. “His people may see the futility of continued resistance,” one Pentagon official said.
On Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, the operational commander of the NATO mission, told reporters at his headquarters in Italy that alliance intelligence officers were picking up reports of Libyan government soldiers abandoning their positions. “We are well aware of troops not reporting for duty,” he said.
Senior officers who served in NATO’s previous air war, fought in 1999 to protect the population of Kosovo from advancing Serbian forces, said that the current air campaign over Libya drew on lessons from Kosovo.
Gen. John P. Jumper, who commanded United States Air Force units in Europe during the Kosovo campaign, recalled that allied “air power was getting its paper graded on the number of tanks killed” — even though taking out armored vehicles one by one was never going to halt “ethnic cleansing.”
So NATO began to hit high-profile institutional targets in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, instead of forces in the field. While they were legitimate military targets, General Jumper said, destroying them also had the effect of undermining popular support for the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic.
“It was when we went in and began to disturb important and symbolic sites in Belgrade, and began to bring to a halt the middle-class life in Belgrade, that Milosevic’s own people began to turn on him,” General Jumper said. “They began to question why the whole thing in Kosovo was going on, because it was ruining the country.”