PARIS — American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Saturday, unleashing warplanes and missiles in the first round of the largest international military intervention in the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon said.
Pentagon and NATO officials detailed a mission designed to impose a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone and keep Mr. Qaddafi from using airpower against beleaguered rebel forces in the east. While the overall effort was portrayed as mostly being led by France and Britain, the Pentagon said that American forces dominated an effort to knock out Libya’s air-defense systems.
In a briefing Saturday afternoon, Vice Adm. William Gortney told reporters that about 110 Tomahawk missiles, fired from American warships and submarines and one British submarine struck 20 air-defense targets around Tripoli, the capital, and the western city of Misurata. He said the strikes were against longer-range air defense missiles as well as early warning radar sites and main command-and-control communication centers.
President Obama, speaking during a visit to Brazil, reiterated promises that no American ground forces would be used. “I am deeply aware of the risks of any military action, no matter what limits we place on it,” he said. “I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice, and it’s not a choice that I make lightly. But we can’t stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy.”
The campaign began soon after the close of a summit meeting in Paris, where leaders, reacting to news that Mr. Qaddafi’s forces were attacking the rebel capital city of Benghazi with artillery and ground troops despite international demands for a cease-fire, said they had no choice but to act to defend Libyan civilians and opposition forces.
“Our assessment is that the aggressive actions by Qaddafi forces continue in many places around the country,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after the meeting in Paris concluded. “We saw it over the last 24 hours, and we’ve seen no real effort on the part of the Qaddafi forces to abide by a cease-fire despite the rhetoric.”
In Benghazi, a rebel fighter, speaking over the phone, described a procession of tanks as well as rooftop snipers fighting for pro-Qaddafi forces in the west of the city. And a steady stream of vehicles, some bearing rebel flags, was seen pouring out of Benghazi toward the rebel-held city of Bayda, where crowds were cheering the news that French airplanes were flying over the area. That news came even before the Paris summit meeting adjourned, with President Nicolas Sarkozy announcing that French warplanes had begun reconnaissance missions around Benghazi, and the French military saying that a Rafale jet fighter had destroyed a government tank near there.
Even though the leaders at the Paris summit meeting were united in supporting military action, there were signs of disagreement over how it would proceed.
Two senior Western diplomats said the Paris meeting, which was organized by Mr. Sarkozy, may actually have delayed allied operations to stop Colonel Qaddafi’s troops as they were approaching Benghazi. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the matter.
The initial French air sorties, which were not coordinated with other countries, angered some of the countries gathered at the summit meeting, according to a senior NATO-country diplomat. Information about the movement of Qaddafi troops toward Benghazi had been clear on Friday, but France blocked any NATO agreement on airstrikes until the Paris meeting, the diplomat said, suggesting that overflights could have begun Friday night before Mr. Qaddafi’s troops reached the city.
The initial stage of the military operation will be run by France and Britain with significant American help, including radar planes, command and control, and precision-guided munitions, including cruise missiles and B-52 bombers, NATO officials said. American forces were expected to focus mostly on knocking out Libyan air defenses.
But Mrs. Clinton emphasized that the United States was not leading the effort. “We did not lead this,” she said. “We did not engage in unilateral actions in any way, but we strongly support the international community taking action against governments and leaders who behave as Qaddafi is unfortunately doing so now.”
By midweek, NATO will take over the operation of the no-fly zone and arms embargo, because it alone has sufficient command and control capabilities, under the direction of the supreme allied commander of Europe, officials said.
Even as Colonel Qaddafi defied demands to withdraw his military, he issued letters warning Mr. Obama and other leaders to hold back from military action against him.
The tone of the letters — one addressed to Mr. Obama and a second to Mr. Sarkozy, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations — suggested that Colonel Qaddafi was leaving himself little room to back down.
“Libya is not yours. Libya is for all Libyans,” he wrote in one letter, read to the news media by a spokesman. “This is injustice, it is clear aggression, and it is uncalculated risk for its consequences on the Mediterranean and Europe.
“You will regret it if you take a step toward intervening in our internal affairs.”
Colonel Qaddafi addressed President Obama as “our son,” in a letter that combined pleas with a jarring familiarity. “I have said to you before that even if Libya and the United States enter into war, God forbid, you will always remain my son and I have all the love for you as a son, and I do not want your image to change with me,” he wrote. “We are confronting Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, nothing more. What would you do if you found them controlling American cities with the power of weapons? Tell me how would you behave so that I could follow your example?”
In Paris, the summit meeting was held over lunch at the Élysée Palace, and it included prime ministers or foreign ministers from Britain, Canada, Germany, Norway, Italy, Qatar, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Poland and Mrs. Clinton for the United States.
The Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, a candidate for the Egyptian presidency, was also there, along with the incoming head of the league, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari of Iraq. Also attending were the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Mr. Ban of the United Nations.
While Arab representatives came, following through on the Arab League’s call for a no-fly zone in Libya, there were no African leaders, and the head of the African Union, Jean Ping, did not attend, instead going to Mauritania for a meeting with African leaders tasked with mediating a peaceful end to the Libyan crisis.
Washington, Paris and London had insisted that at least some Arab governments be involved, at least symbolically, to remove the chance that Colonel Qaddafi could portray the military action as another Western colonial intervention in pursuit of oil.
Many of the leaders in Paris have called for Colonel Qaddafi to quit, and it may be that military intervention leads to negotiations with the opposition for the colonel and his family to go. But Western diplomats said there was no clear endgame — one reason that the Obama administration wanted to give others the lead on Libya, given the importance of other transitions under way, especially in Egypt.
As Western leaders dismissed Mr. Qaddafi’s proclaimed cease-fire as a sham, Mr. Sarkozy announced that French and allied warplanes were already in the skies over Libya.
“Right now our planes are blocking airstrikes on the city,” Mr. Sarkozy said, referring to Benghazi. “French planes are ready to act against armored vehicles that would be threatening unarmed civilians.”
He accused Colonel Qaddafi of “totally ignoring” both the Security Council’s demands for a cease-fire and his own promises to abide by one. But he added: “There is still time for Colonel Qaddafi to avoid the worst by complying with the U.N. resolution. The doors of diplomacy will open again when the aggression has stopped.”
He said it was the duty of France, along with its Arab, European and North American partners, “to protect the civilian population from the murderous madness of a regime that has forfeited all claim to legitimacy.”
While the United Nations resolution specifically justified military action in order to protect civilians, officials in Paris said they were interpreting the language broadly to include the protection of Libya’s armed rebel forces, which have been in all-out retreat over the past week.
News organizations reporting from Benghazi said that a fighter jet crashed on the outskirts of the city Saturday morning, and several Western Web sites published a dramatic photo of the warplane plunging to the ground in flames after the pilot appeared to have ejected. But it was not clear whether French or other allied air forces were involved. It was possible, too, that the plane, which appeared to be a Soviet-era MIG-23 fighter-bomber, could have been flown by the rebels, who seized some military aircraft in Benghazi in the early days of the uprising against Mr. Qaddafi.
Residents of Benghazi reached by telephone described a heavy military assault on the city. One rebel fighter who gave his name as Mansoor said that there was fighting to the west and that he had seen 12 army tanks moving through the city. Pro-Qaddafi snipers were atop the Foreign Ministry building, not far from the courthouse that is the de facto rebel headquarters, and there was fighting along Gamal Abdel Nasser Street nearby as well.
The government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, in Tripoli, the capital, denied that pro-Qaddafi units were attacking in Benghazi and said that only the rebels had an incentive to break the cease-fire.
The head of the rebel National Libyan Council appealed to the international community on Saturday to act swiftly to protect civilians from government forces that he said were attacking Benghazi, Reuters reported. “Now there is a bombardment by artillery and rockets on all districts of Benghazi,” Reuters said, quoting Mustafa Abdel Jalil in an appearance on Al Jazeera. “Today in Benghazi there will be a catastrophe if the international community does not implement the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council.”
The Qaddafi government appeared earlier Saturday to be laying the groundwork for a potential strike in the name of self defense.
Khalid Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, said government intelligence showed tanks, artillery and weapons from Benghazi attacking a town in the east. Government forces, he said, were holding back to observe the cease-fire.