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THE SITUATION ROOM

Target Libya; U.S., Allies Fire on Libya; Operation Odyssey Dawn Under Way; Coalition Attacks in Libya

Aired March 19, 2011 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: U.S. missiles light the Mediterranean sky and Operation Odyssey Dawn is now under way. A coalition of Western and Arab states launched the first strikes on Libya.

JONATHAN MANN, CNN ANCHOR: French warplanes lead the assault. The allies' goal: to stop Moammar Gadhafi from butchering his own people to stay in power.

BLITZER: At this hour, some of the besieged towns, including in Benghazi in ruins, but it's still in the hands of rebels. Benghazi is right now, after days of pleading for help, they're finally getting it. The international community is responding right now with decisive effects.

We want to welcome our viewers to this special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

MANN: And I'm Jonathan Mann in Atlanta.

And we welcome you to our continuing coverage of "Target Libya."

Wolf, it has been an extraordinary day -- it has been an extraordinary 48 hours. Thursday afternoon, we saw the U.N. Security Council authorize the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya. And in just the last few hours, we have seen the first flights to bring that to the air.

Now, eight years to the day after U.S. military strikes began in Iraq, the military has launched missiles into Libya. The first images now of Operation Odyssey Dawn, U.S. and British warships launching dozens of Tomahawk missiles at air defense systems in Libya. Earlier, French fighter jets patrolled the no-fly zone over the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, taking out a military vehicle.

BLITZER: Overhead, opposition forces lost one of their only jets which was shot out of the air. No word yet on who shot it down.

In Paris, the leaders of the international coalition gathered to map out the road ahead and to try to find the best ways to protect the people of Libya from their own government of Moammar Gadhafi. All of this as the U.S. president presses forward with a Latin American tour. He's talking trade in Brazil but keeping up-to-the-minute on events in Libya.

President Obama discussed the situation during a business forum not long ago in Brasilia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, I authorized the armed forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya in support of an international effort to protect Libyan civilians. That action has now begun. In this effort, the United States is acting with a broad coalition that is committed to enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 which calls for the protection of the Libyan people.

That coalition met in Paris today to send a unified message and it brings together many of our European and Arab partners.

This is not an outcome that the United States or any of our partners sought. Even yesterday, the international community offered Moammar Gadhafi the opportunity to pursue an immediate ceasefire, one that stopped the violence against civilians and the advances of Gadhafi's forces. But despite the hollow words of his government, he has ignored that opportunity. His attacks on his own people have continued. His forces have been on the move, and the danger faced by the people of Libya has grown.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We're going to be going to Brasilia in just a few moments. Our senior White House correspondent Ed Henry is standing by.

But, Jon, I got to tell you, over these past few weeks as the crisis in Libya, the unrest there, unfolded, the Pentagon, the president, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state were all very reluctant warriors, to put it mildly. But now that the U.S. is in, I think it's fair to say the U.S. is all in. And they're not going to stop until in the end Gadhafi is gone.

MANN: In fact, Wolf, you know, it's fair to say they did it diplomatically or with a certain amount of guile letting the French introduce the resolution at the United Nations, letting the French fly first into Libya itself and carry out the first attack. But as we've seen in the last few days and certainly in the last few hours, the U.S. has provided a lot of the diplomatic and now the military muscle.

BLITZER: That is a lot of muscle under way right now. And I suspect it's only just beginning. Overwhelming force, that's what General Colin Powell did -- used that phrase during the First Gulf War back in 1991, 20 years ago. If you get in, you have to use overwhelming force. That's what the generals. The admirals want. And that's what's happening.

MANN: And, in fact, it changes this completely. You know, up until now, Moammar Gadhafi's forces were facing a ragtag group of men who taught themselves how to use their own weapons, who seized weapons and figured out as best they could on the fly how to use them against the military that, in fact, brought them into the field.

Well, now, the pilots, the commanders that Moammar Gadhafi is facing are well-trained with the most sophisticated weapons on the planet, the battle has changed completely.

BLITZER: Yes, and no one is more familiar than the president of the United States to that reality, even though he's on a visit to Brazil right now.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent Ed Henry. He's traveling with the president.

What are they saying behind the scenes, Ed, where you are?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in private, they seem very confident that these early U.S. strikes are having an impact. How much of an impact, we're going to have to keep digging and figure out exactly whether or not this will force Moammar Gadhafi from power or not. It still remains to be seen.

But the bottom line is: this president tried to cast himself as a reluctant warrior, if you will, saying that it was basically no choice for the U.S. and its allies to move forward. He said -- the way he put it was that we could not stand idly by as Gadhafi moved closer to killing more civilians in his own country -- very interesting symbolic note which is that the president authorized U.S. force as part of this military action in Libya on a day that just happened to be the eighth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, perhaps realizing the skepticism still around the world lingering from that conflict about unilateral U.S. military action.

The president took great pains to emphasize again and again that he was acting with a broad coalition, that he was not planning to send any U.S. ground forces in for combat, knowing full well the American people have seen a grueling, grueling situation for U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're not about to start a third wide- ranging conflict.

And, finally, a senior U.S. official telling me that the president is planning in private for the U.S. involvement, this heavy air assault early on, the cruise missiles, et cetera, to just be for a few days, not weeks. And then the U.S. will move back to a more supportive role, much different than what we've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, wolf.

BLITZER: How sensitive are White House officials, Ed, to the -- I guess you could call it the politically awkward reality that at a time when the United States is now opening up a warfront, at a time when what's going on in Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, he didn't cancel, he continued on with his long-scheduled visit to Brazil?

HENRY: Well, they are very sensitive to the political ramifications of the president being here in Latin America right now. But they emphasized that anywhere the president travels -- and you know this, Wolf -- he has secure communications to be able to talk and engage with his national security team.

And, in fact, on the ground here, he doesn't need that security communications because he can have face-to-face conversations with his chief of staff, Tom Donilon, Chief of Staff Bill Daley is here. I will note the Defense Secretary Bob Gates has, you know, delayed by one day his trip to Russia, knowing that at the start of this conflict, he needed to be in place at the Pentagon. So, that was done.

But the White House feels very strongly that there's no point in the president -- at least at this point -- cutting this trip to Latin America short. They feel as president of the United States, he has to juggle a lot of balls.

As you mentioned, it's not just Libya. There's the disaster in Japan, the potential nuclear crisis that they're watching very closely. There's still the economic problems back home. There's a lot on his plate and they feel just canceling this trip willy-nilly is not the best move, Wolf.

BLITZER: And also, it's budgetary issues up on Capitol Hill as well. There's a crisis potentially in the works there. He certainly does have a lot on his plate right now.

Ed Henry is traveling with the president in Brazil. We'll stay in close touch with you, Ed.

Jon, it's never, never dull if you're president of the United States.

MANN: No. You know -- and this story in addition to being important and dramatic is strange as well, Wolf. You know, Moammar Gadhafi wrote President Obama a letter and said he loved him like a son. That was earlier today.

And more recently -- well, the firing started and Gadhafi's defined voice could be heard on Libyan state television a short time ago with a different kind of message. With a shot of the presidential palace on the screen, he called on Libyans to take up arms against the coalition forces.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MOAMMAR GADHAFI, LIBYAN LEADER (through translator): And the Libyans will fight against this aggression. All you people of the nations of the Islamic nations and Africa and the people of Latin America and Asia, stand with the Libyan -- with the Libyan people in its fight against this aggression that will not add accepted (ph) results to the internal front. Now, all the depots are going to be opened and arm people to defend people and its unity.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MANN: Meantime, a spokesman for the Gadhafi regime is calling the coalition offensive barbaric and he says civilians are suffering as a result.

CNN's Nic Robertson is in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They seem to be coming from the Moammar Gadhafi's palace, where we were a couple of hours ago.

It was interesting because when we went in on the front lawn, when you go through the first sort of ring of security, there was a group of people perhaps, 30, 40, 50 people with their green flags chanting and singing pro-Gadhafi songs. As we left an hour and a half, two hours later after the first round of Tomahawk cruise missiles had hit the country and some of them apparently not far from Tripoli, that crowd had disappeared. What was in its place was a large anti-aircraft gun being manned by several soldiers. And it seemed to have been fairly dug into that lawn.

And then as we came out beyond another gate of security, we saw more soldiers on anti-aircraft guns. And what we're hearing coming from that command now, it sounds very much like these soldiers practicing on these weapons. Perhaps, they haven't used this type of weapons very much in the past. But, certainly, the sounds that were coming up, sporadic gunfire -- there's nothing apparently in the sky for them to shoot at -- but those sounds certainly coming up.

And we've seen more security out on the streets as we came through the city. Government buildings are being protected by armed civilians, traffic intersections being protected or controlled by armed police and very little traffic out on the streets as we came back towards our hotel here, perhaps an hour or so, an hour and a half after those first missiles hit Libya. They got some more -- we can hear it -- some more anti-aircraft gunfire going on -- Jon, Wolf.

MANN: How much do the people of Libya know about what the coalition is doing? Are they aware that they're under attack, that they've been struck by, for example, more than 100 U.S. missiles or by French fighter planes?

ROBERTSON: You know, I asked a couple of people that. I spoke at this rally to a man who introduced himself to me as a doctor and a university professor and another gentleman, I believe, was a university professor -- both apparently well-educated. Both spoke excellent English.

And both told me that they just don't listen to foreign news because they don't trust it. They said they've only now come to trust Libyan state television, which may sound strange to our viewers. But this is what they told me. And they're ignoring everything they hear on other stations because they think it's just lies and rumor.

And frankly they say it worries them. And they say that they're not bothered about the country being struck by the outside at the moment. It makes them angry. They're worried about their families and how this is all going to play out in the future.

But this is a very sort of defiant message that they wanted to communicate, that it really doesn't matter what the international community does. And, of course, this is what Moammar Gadhafi wants, the image to be put across. This is what he's trying to sort of drum up support for him on television and support for him with having government officials coming out and making these statements -- making the statements as we heard just a little while ago saying that we're innocent, we're held by the ceasefire.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: So, Wolf, you know, you really, listening to that report, have to wonder if for the time being, the coalition is any closer to realizing its goals. It's not clear that the Gadhafi regime is backing away from its assault on Benghazi. It's not clear that the people of Libya are backing away from the regime.

BLITZER: Yes. But if you speak to U.S. officials, it's only been a few hours since this operation started what they say is give it a little time. They're pretty confident that in the end, they will succeed.

U.S. officials have stressed that American forces are not taking a leading role in this fight.

Our chief national correspondent John King is joining us here in Washington.

Why is this so important to President Obama to keep making the point that, you know, this is not a U.S.-led operation, this is an international coalition?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's important for domestic political reasons, Wolf, because of the wariness of war after Iraq in Afghanistan which, of course, is still ongoing.

It's especially important in the region. The president believes, and his national security team believes that Gadhafi and the Iranians in particular will try to have a propaganda machine saying, here come the Americans again, here come the imperialist Americans trying to take over Arab countries, trying to impose their will, trying to take our land and take our oil. So, they want this to be an international coalition.

However, if you do look at the military firepower used in day one, an awful lot of U.S. military firepower. However, the president being adamant that after two or three days of punishing especially those anti-aircraft and the military command and control, he expects the United States to step back and be in much more of a supportive control. And, as you know, Wolf, he's been adamant there will be no U.S. ground forces involved.

But you've covered many of these things. I've covered many of these things. Once they start, sometimes they take unpredictable turns.

BLITZER: Yes. Those Tomahawk cruise missiles, 110 them, were launched from ships and submarines in the Mediterranean. Off the top of my head, I seem to think each one cost about $1 million when all is said and done in the back (INAUDIBLE). That's $100 million spent right there to destroy as much of Gadhafi's air defense system, his radar system, as possible. To get to this point, John, give us some perspective. How reluctant was the Obama administration to get involved in a no-fly zone operation? Were they under pressure from the French and others or was this reluctance overblown?

KING: Well, I -- there was considerable reluctance, public reluctance from Defense Secretary Gates. His essentially point was, once you start, you don't know where it's going. He knows his military has been -- not stretched then, he says they have the capability to handle this, but that they've been quite busy and that there is some weariness. And he also just believes again that once these things start, they get unpredictable.

However, the administration began to shift -- I talked to an official yesterday who said flatly, in some ways, we were dragged into this by the Europeans. But we do know as this drags on, as they received more intelligence of what was going on the ground, of the massacre of not only the opposition but the Gadhafi forces and mercenaries moving from Tripoli to the east, toward Benghazi, that Secretary of State Clinton became an influential voice for saying, we have to do something, we have to have a stronger role. Let's at least try to see if we can do something hopefully at a minimum -- minimal cost militarily that at least stops the slaughter, gives the opposition some time to regroup.

And then the question is -- this is not a stated goal of the U.N. resolution or of this military operation -- but they all hope privately, Wolf, in the administration and you hear it much more from the Europeans, that the opposition could not only regroup and get a breather but can rearm and then start marching again toward Tripoli.

BLITZER: And one thing about the rearming is significant because when I spoke with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, yesterday, I asked, does this resolution authorize the U.S., the Europeans, the Arab world to arm the rebels? And she said, not directly, but there is language in there that could be interpreted as all means necessary to protect civilians -- so sending weapons and arms to the rebels is not necessarily out of the question.

KING: Not out of the question at all. There was a "Wall Street Journal" report last night, Wolf, that there were arms coming into the opposition by land across the border from Egypt. And I tried to research that with a couple of senior administration officials. None of them would confirm it, that arms were coming into the opposition across land in Egypt, essentially with the U.S. knowledge. And neither official would confirm it although one did say.

It's quite interesting, isn't it?

BLITZER: Very interesting, indeed. All right. This is only just beginning. I've said it before and I'll say it. John King, thanks very much.

Jon Mann is here with us as well.

This is an operation that could last a few days, could last a few weeks. It's open-ended. MANN: No one can predict how history takes things like this as sometimes we've all learned to our regret. But, so far, as you've been saying, as we've been reporting, the U.S. and other authorities say they are very confident with the way this is going and as you mentioned, it's just day one.

U.S. firepower in the Mediterranean -- more than 100 missiles with really one single target: the embattled regime of Moammar Gadhafi. We'll have the latest from the Pentagon, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces will fight back against what he calls the undeserved naked aggression. His comments come after more than 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles rained down on military targets in Libya.

Our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is joining us now with more details.

That was a thorough briefing at the Pentagon, Chris. I know you were there. You attended. They told us what has happened now. But they're not telling us what's next.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. But we can pretty much surmise what's going to come next. After they establish some form of air superiority -- in other words, after they're confident that they have put down Colonel Gadhafi's air defense forces, that's when you'll start to see the no-fly zone really taking place and kicking into effect.

What these first strikes that you're looking at now, what they were designed to do is primarily target one thing. These so-called SA-5s, it's a specific type of surface-to-air missile that Colonel Gadhafi had that has the capability to reach anywhere between 150, possibly 180 miles offshore. That was one of the key concerns of the allies before instituting the no-fly zone.

So, they went after that. They also went after his early warning radar systems and some of his other surface-to-air capability.

One of the Pentagon officials talked about the difference between what's being targeted now and what the no-fly zone will look like later.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VICE ADMIRAL WILLIAM GORTNEY, U.S. NAVY CENTRAL COMMAND: At this point, we are creating the conditions to be able to set up the no-fly zone. And once we have established and confirmed that the conditions are right, then we will move forward into the next -- one of the next phases of the campaign.

Most of them are on or near the coast, a fact which made their destruction vital to the enforcement of a no-fly zone since so much of the air activity we have seen and so much of the regime's military efforts have been in this part of the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LAWRENCE: The Pentagon believes that they hit about 20 of those sites. Now, there is no definitive total of how much capability Colonel Gadhafi had. But it's believed to be somewhere in the range of 30 to 40 of those missile launchers. So, depending on how much damage was done to those 20, they may have taken out a significant portion of his capability.

But, again, they're going to have to wait to assess that damage to see exactly how much was done to his capability.

As for the no-fly zone that you're looking at now, they've decided to only enforce it in the more populated northern areas along the coast where Colonel Gadhafi's forces are concentrated. One of the -- one of the primary differences in, say, doing it this way versus trying to cover the whole country is flat-out cost. The cost of establishing a no-fly zone over this part of the country is estimated to be somewhat just under $100 million a week. To do it over the entire country of Libya, that could go up to more than $300 million a week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, not cheap by any means.

At what point, Chris, do they go -- do they make a decision not only to go after and take out the air defense systems of Libya, including the radar systems, but to actually go to the air bases, the air force bases in Libya? They know where they are. They know where the aging mirage is and MiG jet fighters are. They know where those hangars are.

At what point do they decide: (a), to try to destroy those planes on the ground or, (b), simple destroy the runways, crater those runways so they can't take off?

LAWRENCE: That would be a likely phase two, Wolf, after they've already taken care of some of his defenses that can reach out into the air, that can reach offshore. Then if they believe that the planes that are on the ground, if he was scrambling, to scramble some of his jets, if they believe those to be a threat, then they would try to take out those next.

One of the things to keep in mind is that we were told that his ground forces, some of his ground forces may not be off-limits when it comes to this no-fly zone. And by that I mean, Pentagon officials believe that some of his capability of firing from the surface to the air rests with some of his ground forces. And so, one Pentagon official said those ground forces are in danger of being attacked as well.

BLITZER: Yes, because those ground forces, I assume, a lot of them have those stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which would --

LAWRENCE: Mobile, very mobile.

BLITZER: -- very mobile and they could obviously take down a plane. They could get lucky and do it.

All right. Chris, thanks very much. Chris is not going to go away. He's our man at the Pentagon tonight.

Jon, this is -- this is a war. For all practical purposes, it was a civil war. But now, it's expanded.

MANN: Yes, and, Wolf, we have called it a no-fly zone that the United Nations resolution established. But essentially, the U.N. wrote a blank check for everything short of an army of occupation. So, in many ways, the no-fly zone, as you keep saying, is the first step and this is the first day. But there could be a lot ahead that we just aren't ready to predict.

Still ahead on this program, though, it wasn't just U.S. cruise missiles that went slamming into Libyan soil. Britain is taking an active role in the effort to protect Libya's people. We'll hear from the prime minister as he plans military strategy.

The latest developments from London -- up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Welcome back.

Great Britain is an active part of the international coalition force in Libya. Prime Minister David Cameron held a crisis meeting at 10 Downing Street just a few hours ago and then came out to talk to reporters, essentially the world.

CNN's Atika Shubert is there and joins us now.

What's Britain's role in this? And what did the prime minister have to say about it?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, basically, he came out confirming that British forces are in action over Libya. And he justified this operation as one that was necessary, legal and right.

Here's what he said:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Tonight, British forces are in action over Libya. They are part of an international coalition that has come together to enforce the will of the United Nations and to protect the Libyan people.

We have all seen the appalling brutality that Colonel Gadhafi has meted out against his own people. And far from introducing the ceasefire he spoke about, he's actually stepped up the attacks and the brutality that we can all see. So, what we are doing is necessary, it is legal, and it is right.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SHUBERT: Now, he didn't give any operational military details in that statement. But we do know from the Ministry of Defense that British submarines were involved in that salvo of Tomahawk missiles that was unleashed earlier, hitting about 20 targets in Libya, according to the Pentagon. But it has to be said -- Britain has really taken a front role here. Remember, it was actually Cameron that was pushing for this no-fly zone from the beginning, even when it was back then an unpopular idea. And now that it has come to fruition, Cameron can be expected to take a front role still.

MANN: I have to ask you about that because it's no secret that then- Prime Minister Tony Blair faced enormous opposition while he was in office and now, even that he's out of office for taking part in the U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein. There had been inquiries. There's been all kinds of questions about Blair's role, in particular, whether he misled parliament and the British people. What kind of political gamble is this for David Cameron for him to now go to war himself?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, there are a lot of parallels that have been drawn toward Blair's position in Iraq and Cameron's position here in Libya. But I think the crucial difference is this time, Cameron does seem to have a lot of backing throughout the political spectrum. There seems to be this common agreement here that it's better to take action in Libya than to not take action and see what happens if Gadhafi ends up attacking his own people.

So the risk seems to be less, at least among many politicians here believe if action is taken now rather than later. And this is why he has gotten support, really, from many of his political opponents.

Anchor: Atika Shubert at 10 Downing Street, thanks very much. Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: John, thank you. An uneasy night in a rebel stronghold. The ally defensive now under way. But Gadhafi's forces are amassing on the outskirts of the town. We're going to Benghazi for the latest.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Welcome back to the special edition of the "Situation Room," I'm Jonathan Mann in Atlanta.

BLITZER: And I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're live from five continents as we bring you breaking news out of Libya. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Let's get all of us caught up on what's happening right now.

The battle for Libya has become an international fight. Operation "Odyssey Dawn" is officially under way. Coalition forces are trying to cripple Gadhafi's air defense systems. The Pentagon says 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles have struck more than 20 targets mainly around the western cities of Tripoli and Misrata. Earlier, French planes destroyed military vehicles after Libyan forces attacked the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. MANN: The international show of force is being welcomed by the rebels there. An opposition spokesman says this fighter jet shut down there belonged to the rebels. The international community in the meantime taking great pains to present a united front in all this. Saturday's coalition meeting in Paris, an emergency summit really, which included western and Arab partners, focused on how to take on Gadhafi's regime under the U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians.

It's now the middle of the night in Benghazi, but you can be sure they're getting little rest there. Moammar Gadhafi's troops have pulled back from their assault but remain menacingly close on the outskirts of the town. CNN's Arwa Damon is also there.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): ... very excited to have survived yet another armed (INAUDIBLE) by Gadhafi's forces and down the road here in the southern part of the city that his troops, his heavy armor came barreling down in the early hours of the morning. This tank that was captured by opposition forces, now it is turned into something of a victory symbol.

That's the driver of the vehicle where obviously you can see the two bullet holes in the glass and everyone, of course, congratulating him on the fact that he survived.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A long line of tanks, missiles, I mean, people with - armed with - I mean, with heavy arm -

DAMON: Where were you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Up there in the streets. Four of our cars and my home are being hit, have been damaged. They are randomly hitting the houses and they were laughing. When they were hitting us, they were laughing.

DAMON: Were you worried? Where is your family?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Inside the house. They were crying, screaming (INAUDIBLE) intimidating.

DAMON: Was it just - did they only come on tanks or were they on foot as well?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Foot, tanks, cars. (INAUDIBLE) You can hear the different voices of the weapons. Which makes you believe that there's a lot of weapons, a lot of different weapons. You can't imagine that they are hitting that many civilian people.

DAMON: You can clearly see the tank tracks where they've dug up the concrete. And we're beginning to see some of the damage that was caused by the rounds that were fired earlier. Around the corner, there's a building that has sustained quite a bit of damage with eyewitnesses telling us that that is directly where the tank rounds were firing. This here used to be a pharmacy, residents were telling us. They're also talking about a residential building that was fired upon one of those many apartment (INAUDIBLE) back there. Everybody here growing very concerned that Gadhafi's forces have withdrawn only to launch yet another attack.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Benghazi, Libya.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Thank you, Arwa. The coalition strikes against Libya and the nations from all over the world are taking part. We'll talk to a former NATO supreme allied commander about the challenges of such an operation. Stay with us, you're in "The Situation Room.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's called "Operation: Odyssey Dawn." It is now full throttle over Libya. France and then the U.S. and Britain attacking strategic military targets of Moammar Gadhafi. Let's bring in our CNN contributor, retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, a former NATO supreme allied commander.

General Clark, why did the U.S. decide to use Tomahawk cruise missiles, 110 of them, launched from ships and submarines in the Mediterranean, to knock out as much of Libya's air defense system as possible as opposed to flying in with F-16s, let's say, or using pilotless drones to do the job?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well, this is a safe, sure way to do it. It's U.S. air doctrine. We've been doing this now for 20 years. We know how to use these Tomahawks. We're good at it. They're effective, they're reliable, they're safe. They don't normally miss and you don't expose pilots to risk. Why take unnecessary risk in something like this?

BLITZER: Given your knowledge of the Libyan air defense system, how much of it realistically - and we don't know the results of the U.S. assessment right now - but realistically, what would you think? How much of it was destroyed over the past few hours?

CLARK: You know, Wolf, it's really hard to say. My guess is the SA- 5s were taken down, these are the long-range, high-altitude interceptor missiles that would pose a problem to high-altitude, unmanned aerial vehicles, for example. But they were not mobile. They were fixed. But maybe Gadhafi has figured out a way to remote them and do other things with them. You don't always know when you first go in - that's the reason why you may physically strike, you have to do the battle damaged assessment, you have to see where the radar come back up you do a little aerial reconnaissance and see what's happened to it afterwards and you do electronic reconnaissance and listen to it. And you try to understand exactly what the impact was.

The air defense systems have become more sophisticated over the years. And after the experience that other nations saw with - when we went into "Desert Storm" 20 years ago, people tried to do things to protect their air defense systems because they know that's the first target. But my guess in this case is we were pretty effective.

BLITZER: How vulnerable is the Libyan air force? Right now, their mirages, their mig fighters that are on the ground at air bases at hangars, if the U.S. wanted to destroy those planes on the ground, could it?

CLARK: Probably could destroy most of it, on the ground. May be some hardened shelters. That was doctrine. Some of that was done in eastern Europe, some of it has been done elsewhere. But for the most part those aircraft are exposed or are in hangars that are vulnerable. They can be taken out.

BLITZER: Even if the U.S. were to do that, to destroy the air defense system, to destroy their jet fighters, the Libyans still have stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles which the Afghanis learned how to use in the '80s against the Soviets rather effectively.

CLARK: True. And it depends on which model stinger they have or SA- 7, SA-14, SA-18. The more advanced models that came out reach at a higher altitude. They have a better detection capability. So they're not as easily spoofed by flares and decoys and other things. And so they're more difficult. For example, 10 years ago when we were concerned that the Serbs might them the sA-18s, we kept our aircraft at 20,000 feet, didn't lose anything to the SA-18s.

In the Gulf war, in the early 1990s, we were able to fly much lower and we took our chances because we could spoof some of the earlier models. So the intelligence types will have a much better feel on specifically which kind of SA-7, 14 or 18 we're facing, shoulder-fired systems.

BLITZER: In a few days, if the U.S. steps back and the international coalition partners take over, let's say a British general or a French general or admiral is in charge, is that a problem for the U.S. military, to be under the command of foreign leaders?

CLARK: Well, it's not really that we're going to be under the command. We might be under the operational direction or something. We'll never be under the command of a foreign leader. That command channel remains U.S. national. But they might be coordinating some of our air force - it defends on what we do. When were using Tomahawk cruise missiles and we're using classified assets like this, they'll never be coordinated through a foreign leader because the operational parameters and the methods of coordination are highly classified, not released to foreign nationals with the exception of our Tomahawks which we share with the British.

If we were flying a combat air patrol overhead F-16s, could probably share that and do that coordination with allied air commanders. But they need the right means of communication. They need the right intelligence. I heard our Pentagon briefer talked earlier about global hawk being overhead which is a very high-altitude, long- endurance, unmanned aerial vehicle. That's in U.S. channels. So there will always be some U.S. national reconnaissance means as a minimum that have to be fed in and filtered through a U.S. chain of command into a coalition headquarters.

BLITZER: I assume they're using hawkeyes off of ships and they're using AWACS aircraft to monitor what's going on as well in addition to what they call the national technical means, the satellites that are flying overhead. We're going to stay in close touch with you. General Clark, thanks very much.

CLARK: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's go back to Jonathan Mann. John.

MANN: Up next, it was the U.N. that authorized the attack on Libya. Is there anyone left in the U.N. to defend that country. What's happening next at the United Nations, coming up.

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MANN: Welcome back. As we've been reporting, Moammar Gadhafi has lost control of his air space. He has lost control of his U.N. delegation as well. Libya's diplomats split with Gadhafi weeks ago and right now, even through the enforcement of a U.N. no-fly zone, he doesn't have anyone representing him at the United Nations.

Richard Roth has been in contact with the delegation who have switched sides and joins us now. Richard, awkward position for them but even more for him.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR U.N. CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And there are reports in Arab media tonight that the Libyans want a emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. This is coming out of Tripoli. The council just voted Thursday night for resolution 1973, which has been quickly acted on by the U.S. and France. The deputy U.N. ambassador for Libya Ibrahim Dabbashi, told me by telephone he's relieved that these strikes have occurred. He asked for the no-fly zone a month ago when he dramatically politically defected from the Libyan government though he represented Colonel Gadhafi for many years and was aware of what kind of political leader he was.

Dabbashi says he doesn't think there will be an emergency security council meeting. He says there will be no one left to represent Libya at the meeting and we also know that you have to be a country on the security council to start the process to actually have a session. Now, Russia, Jonathan, has come out with a political statement for the foreign ministry saying this resolution was too hastily adopted, and that it calls for a ceasefire and an end of violence. But Russia had to know that this could happen very quickly and it abstained and didn't veto when it could have.

Of course, Jonathan, remember when Colonel Gadhafi dramatically was on the stage at the world arena at the general assembly, not that long ago, over a year ago, and he took the United Nations charter, held it up and actually ripped a page from it. Well, today, you might say the U.S. and France and maybe others ripped through some of his installations and compounds with some more military might.

Though as you said before, you never know where these things will politically go. But certainly as analysts say, Gadhafi somewhat has turned into the perfect villain for the world nations to rally around and to go after, despite atrocities and government crackdowns in other countries.

MANN: You know, as you're talking, we're looking at pictures of him. I remember that speech, it went on for hours and hours. It was bizarre and the extreme. It was back when he seemed more ridiculous than dangerous. Of course, we have a very different view of him now. But his officials are inviting the United Nations to send monitors, because they say that Tripoli has been observing the ceasefire, that it hasn't been trying to assault Benghazi or Misrata or the other rebel-held strongholds. Is there any prospect of the U.N. actually sending someone to look at their request?

ROTH: I'm not sure some of those countries want to send people with missiles flying around. They are countries that are somewhat friendly with Gadhafi and the U.N. has a new special envoy that was just there and the secretary-general just reported that he saw worrisome signs of attacks on journalists and civilians.

The Libyans may reach out to the U.N. to try to come up with maybe the envoy returning in a bid to make some diplomatic process. But once things go flying, as we've seen, John, sometimes the deadlines pass and Gadhafi is still sending out bellicose messages, which is not going to help him at the U.N..

MANN: Richard Roth in New York, thanks very much. Wolf?

BLITZER: John, let me ask you a question. Because you're one of the few journalists that have actually interviewed Gadhafi a few years ago. I remember that interview here on CNN. A lot of people think he's crazy. Others say he's crazy like a fox. What was your impression?

MANN: You know, you used the word crazy both times, Wolf. He was strange. This was back in 2005, and there was a window when Libya wanted to open to the west, when it surrendered its weapons of mass destruction to the Bush administration and really was trying to turn itself around from a pariah state to a modern, open economy. And that was the era when I was invited in and met with Moammar Gadhafi, and the truth is, he's the most bizarre, the strangest head of state I've ever met. I can't speak to his sanity. He seemed listless, he seems to have trouble focusing his eyes or attention. You know, you ever meet someone and talk to them and they just don't seem like they're all there? Well, he was just like that that day. And I kept thinking and to this day I still wonder he's been in power for 40 years, more than 40 years.

Even now he is fighting the outside world to hold onto power. It was strange, it was hard to believe a man like that could survive so long, and maybe what we are seeing, in fact, is the end now, or in the days to come to that long, bizarre story. It's not a trip I'll ever forget.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure. You're thinking a lot about it right now. John, don't go away. We have a lot more to watch. This is a new phase in the war in Libya. More of our breaking news coverage right after this.

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BLITZER: Shifting gears quickly to the crisis in Japan right now.

Police say more than 7,600 people have died since the massive earthquake and tsunami struck last week. Nearly 12,000 people are still missing. The Japanese government is considering halting the sale of food from areas near the nuclear plants that have been in trouble after abnormally high levels of radiation were found in milk and spinach produced there. Workers are racing to restore power to the cooling systems at the plant's six reactors. Authorities hope that getting the electricity back on will stop radiation from leaking preventing the worst case scenarios from unfolding and that includes a full nuclear meltdown.

MANN: This has been a special edition of "The Situation Room," I'm Jonathan Mann in Atlanta.

BLITZER: John, thanks very, very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. I'll be back in one hour in "The Situation Room," CNN's live breaking news coverage of the events in Libya will continue. The air strikes. Our live coverage from five continents. Thanks very much for joining us. In two minutes, Don Lemon in the CNN NEWSROOM.

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