— TRIPOLI, Libya - Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night Monday, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Ghadafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat just last week.
But the rebellion's more organized military units were still not ready, and the opposition disarray underscored U.S. warnings that a long stalemate could emerge.
The air campaign by U.S. and European militaries has unquestionably rearranged the map in Libya and rescued rebels from the immediate threat they faced only days ago of being crushed under a powerful advance by Gadhafi's forces. The first round of airstrikes smashed a column of regime tanks that had been moving on the rebel capital of Benghazi in the east.
Monday night, Libyan state TV said a new round of strikes had begun in the capital, Tripoli, marking the third night of bombardment. But while the airstrikes can stop Gadhafi's troops from attacking rebel cities — in line with the U.N. mandate to protect civilians — the United States, at least, appeared deeply reluctant to go beyond that toward actively helping the rebel cause to oust the Libyan leader.
"These attacks are not going to scare the Libyan people," said a state television broadcast. There was no immediate comment from Western forces.
'Gadhafi has to go'
President Barack Obama said Monday that "it is U.S. policy that Gadhafi has to go." But, he said, the international air campaign has a more limited goal, to protect civilians.
"Our military action is in support of an international mandate from the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Col. Gadhafi to his people. Not only was he carrying out murders of civilians but he threatened more," the president said on a visit to Chile.
Gunfire rung out throughout the night and pro-Gadhafi slogans echoed around the city center. Cars sped through Tripoli streets honking wildly.
One Tripoli resident said he had heard a blast in the southern outskirts of the city but its exact location was not clear. Movements by foreign journalists in the capital have been restricted by the government.
Al Jazeera television said coalition forces had struck radar installations at two air defense bases in eastern Libya late on Monday. However, a French armed forces spokesman said France, which has been involved in strikes in the east, had no planes in the air at the time.
A senior U.S. defense official told NBC News that the only working air surveillance radars that Ghadafi's military forces have left are in Tripoli and in Surt.
The official said the coalition still has a target list, but much of what they struck Monday night, and will continue to hit in the coming hours, will be targets of opportunity.
The U.S. and British have now launched a total of 136 Tomahawk missiles (mostly U.S.) in the past 48 hours, but the number of TLAM launches will not increase much more as the sky becomes safer for jets and the coalition turns increasingly to air strikes.
More than 80 coalition aircraft flew in the past 24 hours, striking at least 32 targets.
The U.S. military still does not have any reports of civilian casualties due to coalition attacks, the defense official told NBC News.
Meanwhile, government loyalists surrounded Misrata, the only big rebel stronghold in western Libya, killing at least nine people, cutting off its water and bringing in human shields, residents said on Monday.
By Monday afternoon, around 150 citizen-fighters were massed in a field of dunes several miles (kilometers) outside the eastern town of Ajdabiya. Some stood on the wind-swept dunes with binoculars to survey the positions of pro-Gadhafi forces sealing off the entrances of the city. Ajdabiya itself was visible, black smoke rising, apparently from fires burning from fighting in recent days.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said a U.N. resolution authorizing military action in Libya resembled "medieval calls for crusades" and China stepped up criticism as Western forces prepared to switch from air strikes to air patrols.
Discord also plagued the coalition. The U.S. was eager to pass leadership off, but the allies were deeply devided on the issue. Turkey was adamantly against NATO taking charge, while Italy hinted Monday it would stop allowing use of its airfields if the veteran alliance is not given the leadership. Germany and Russia also criticized the way the mission is being carried out.
The first strikes over the weekend halted the advance of Gadhafi's forces on Benghazi and targeted Libyan air defenses to give Western warplanes control of the skies, but there have been no immediate rebel gains on the ground.
Obama said the United States would transfer leadership of the military operation to other, unnamed participants within a "matter of days, not weeks," but he declined to provide a more precise timetable.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the intention was to transfer the coalition command to NATO, but France said Arab countries did not want the U.S.-led military alliance in charge.
While Western governments wrangled, bloodshed continued on the ground despite a cease-fire decreed by Gadhafi's military.
"The people of Misrata went into the streets and to the (city) center, unarmed, in an attempt to stop Gadhafi's forces entering the city," a resident told Reuters by telephone.
"When they gathered in the center the Gadhafi forces started shooting at them with artillery and guns. They committed a massacre. The hospital told us at least nine people were killed," the resident, who gave his name as Saadoun, added.
The report could not be independently verified because Libyan authorities prevented reporters from reaching Misrata.
At least eight rebels were killed in battles in Ajdabiya, where dozens of fighters retreated to a checkpoint 12 miles north of the town, the New York Times reported.
A U.S. national security official, who declined to be identified by name, said advances by Gadhafi's forces against Benghazi, Ajdabiya and Misrata had "stalled" as a consequence of the military action by U.S. and European forces that began Saturday.
Meanwhile, coalition forces fired 10 to 12 missiles at Libyan targets overnight and flew 70 to 80 sorties, said Gen. Carter Ham, the U.S. commander in Africa. Early Saturday, coalition forces fired more than 110 missiles at 22 Libyan targets.
Speaking by video conference from his headquarters in Germany, Ham told Pentagon reporters he expected a decline in the frequency of attacks on Libya in the coming days. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also quoted Monday as saying the U.S. will soon reduce its participation in the coalition operation, according to Russia's Interfax news service.
Ham said the coalition of nations was moving to expand the U.N.-approved no-fly zone southward and westward from Benghazi, eventually to the capital, Tripoli.
He said that zone would cover "about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), so it's a pretty wide area." Benghazi, which the rebels control and Gadhafi's forces sought to capture last week, is about 400 miles from Tripoli.
the coalition doesn't know much about the whereabouts of Gadhafi. The international coalition is focusing instead on knocking out Libya's ability to command and control its forces.
Ham said the campaign is not providing air support for Libyan rebels fighting Gadhafi and he says there is no direct coordination with those rebels.
Strike on Gadhafi's compound
Libyan officials in Tripoli said the strike on Gadhafi's compound, which was heavily bombed in 1986 by the Reagan administration, had destroyed a building.
"It was a barbaric bombing," said government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim, showing reporters pieces of shrapnel that he said came from the missile. "This contradicts American and Western (statements) ... that it is not their target to attack this place."
U.S. military officials told NBC News on Monday that Gadhafi's chief of staff has ordered that bodies be removed from morgues and placed at the Libyan leader's compound to make it appear the dead had been killed by coalition airstrikes.
The U.S. insists the fortified Bab al-Azaziya site was legitimate military target.
The head of Britain's armed forces denied Gadhafi was a target. "Absolutely not. It's not allowed under the U.N. resolution and it's not something I want to discuss any further," General David Richards told the BBC.
A spokesman for the French military, whose warplanes have been conducting strikes in the Benghazi region, said there is a "very clear scale-down in the intensity of combat and, therefore, threats to the population" because of the bombardment.
"There still are pro-Gadhafi elements in the zone where we're working. Nevertheless, these elements haven't necessarily been dealt with because they are mixed in, for example with the civilian population," Thierry Burkhard said.
Mohammed Abdul-Mullah, a 38-year-old civil engineer from Benghazi who was fighting with the rebel force, said government troops stopped all resistance after the international campaign began.
"They were running, by foot and in small cars," he said. "The balance has changed a lot. But pro-Gadhafi forces are still strong. They are a professional military and they have good equipment. Ninety percent of us rebels are civilians, while Gadhafi's people are professional fighters."
In Cairo, a group of Libyans angry at the international intervention in their homeland blocked the path of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon following his meeting at the Arab League on Monday.
Ban had finished talks with the Arab League chief Amr Moussa and left the organization's headquarters in Cairo to walk around nearby Tahrir Square, the centerpiece of Egyptian uprising that last month toppled Hosni Mubarak, when dozens of Libyan protesters converged on him and his security detail.
The Libyans, carrying pictures of Gadhafi and banners critical of the United States and United Nation, blocked Ban's path, forcing him to return to the league and leave from another exit.
The resolution makes Gadhafi's forces potential targets for U.S. and European strikes.
U.S., British and French planes went after tanks headed toward Benghazi, in the opposition-held eastern half of the country. Rebels defended their support of the international intervention into Libya — apparently feeling the sting of criticism from other Libyans and Arabs who warned the country could be divided or collapse into a civil war.
"Libya will not turn into Somalia or Iraq. It will not be divided. We are battling — the Libyan people — are battling a gang of mercenaries," Mohammed al-Misrati, a rebel spokesman in the stronghold of Misrata, told Al-Jazeera on Monday.