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American, French and British Forces Carry Out Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya; Official Japanese Death Toll Now 8,300; Gadhafi Digs In, Remains Defiant

Aired March 20, 2011 - 13:00   ET

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


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Fredricka Whitfield at CNN world headquarters in Atlanta.

ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Isha Sesay. We'd like to welcome viewers in the United States and right around the world for our special coverage of the conflict in Libya.

Well, American, French and British military forces are carrying out Operation Odyssey Dawn.

WHITFIELD: It's a U.N.-approved mission intended to stop Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from violating a ceasefire and attacking his own people. Multiple air and missile strikes have hit Libyan military targets in eastern Libya since the operation was launched just 24 hours ago.

SESAY: Well, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen says most of Gadhafi's air defense systems and airfields have been taken out, and Libyan ground forces have also been hit.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ADM. MIKE MULLEN, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: The no-fly zone is effectively in place. We've got -- we've got combat air patroller aircraft over Benghazi, and we'll have them there for -- on a 24/7 basis, start to move that to the west. He hasn't flown any aircraft for the last two days. And the whole goal here is to, one, get it in place, two, be in a position so that he is unable to massacre his own civilians and that we effect the humanitarian support. So from that standpoint, the initial operations have been very effective.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: Besides the U.S., Britain and France, countries taking part in the Libyan operation include Italy, Spain, Canada and Qatar.

SESAY: Well, in a speech on state TV, Gadhafi vowed to fight back against what he calls, quote, "terrorists" attacking his country.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

MOAMMAR GADHAFI, LIBYAN LEADER (through translator): We will be victorious. We will achieve victory on behalf of the people. We have Allah with us. You have the devil on your side. (END AUDIO CLIP)

SESAY: He also called coalition nations the "new Nazis" and promised a, quote, "long-drawn war" -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

All right, so Nic, Gadhafi sounding very defiant. What are people saying -- or at least standing his ground. What are people there saying?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, his supporters are rallying behind him, and certainly, the effort that he's trying to do here is to sort of cast this as the sort of Christian world against the Muslim world. He's calling this a "crusader war," which is designed not only to sort of build support inside Libya for himself, but also build support for Libya from outside. And he's telling the population that they have support from Africa, from the Middle East, from Asia, as well.

So he's really trying to bolster his standing not just here, not just threaten the international community with a long war, with attacks in the Mediterranean on warships there, and not just -- not just to say that the whole population is armed or is going to be armed and they will fight back the international community. But it's very much to set himself up, as we've heard in the past from other Arab leaders when faced by the international community -- to set themselves up as being the victims of a Christian crusader invading army because that's the way that he feels he can build the biggest support.

There have been on state television today funerals, funerals that the government says are of civilians killed in the bombing, but the only thing that they've shown on state television here were wounded soldiers in that bombing.

And we've from people here who have been very concerned about the bombing, worried about the bombing, but they don't support Moammar Gadhafi, but they're too afraid to come out and say that publicly. So you have a lot of concern here about what may happen in the coming days, a lot of civilians here in the city who don't support Moammar Gadhafi but also very concerned about the nature of the air strikes at the moment, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: And Nic, clear comments coming from Gadhafi. However, he did not take to the camera for his speech. Why not, do you suppose?

ROBERTSON: Hard to tell, but we haven't seen him since the air campaign began. There was a short speech the night before, where again, he didn't appear on camera. We were gathered in his palace compound last night, along with about a thousand Libyans, and there was a real expectation that he would appear. There was definitely the feeling on the ground and security on the ground that gave us to believe that he would be coming.

And then while we were there, the air strikes happened very close to Tripoli, and that's when -- that's when it appeared that he wasn't going to -- he wasn't going to show up. So you get the impression by not being seen on television, he's not trying to give away any clues, any indications where he is at the moment, what sort of building he's in, because it would -- he would feel very likely that he could feel right now that he would be a target for an air strike. So he's keeping his location a highly kept secret, it would appear -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Nic Robertson, thanks so much, in Tripoli -- Isha.

SESAY: Well, let's get right to CNN's Arwa Damon, who's back in Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. Arwa, we're being told that, effectively, a no-fly zone is in place. What are you seeing and hearing?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Isha, what we did see earlier in the day was the aftermath of the French air strikes that eyewitnesses say took place at 5:00 o'clock in the morning, that managed to bring Gadhafi's military machine to a grinding halt, these air strikes viewed by the opposition here as literally having saved their lives.

The location of the strikes is around 30 kilometers, some 20 miles outside of Benghazi. It was at the location where Gadhafi forces had massed preparing, we are told, to launch another assault on Benghazi. The aftermath of this was really quite formidable. We saw at least 17 burned-out military vehicles, ranging from SUVs and trucks all the way to armored personnel carriers, tanks that had their turrets blown off.

We were told by eyewitnesses and by others in the area that this strike was right on target. There are -- there were a number of Gadhafi forces who were killed. We saw five charred bodies -- again, residents telling us that there were no civilian casualties, one eyewitness saying that the strikes began at around 5:00 o'clock in the morning, lighting up the dark sky, turning it orange.

He also said that after that, the Gadhafi forces who managed to survive this were trying to evacuate their dead and wounded, and that is when they were attacked by opposition fighters who managed to drive them further away from the city, people there expressing their gratitude, saying thank you to France because, again, they do believe that if these air strikes had not happened today, right now, they would have all been massacred, Isha.

SESAY: Well, Arwa, let's be clear. Now that they have the no-fly zone that they long have been calling for, what do rebel fighters tell you they plan to do next?

DAMON: Well, Isha, what they're planning to do, in their terms, is to liberate the rest of Libya. What they want to do, ideally, is push Gadhafi's military as far back as they possibly can. While they're not disclosing any sort of specifics in terms of their military strategy, we do now hear that the so-called front line is back in the city of Ajdabia. That has been the scene over the last few weeks of some very heavy fighting.

They want to really bring about this -- they want to bring about an end to this bloodshed, but they do believe that they have to continue to battle Gadhafi forces until they do bring down the man who they say has ruled this country with an iron fist for four decades.

SESAY: Arwa, they've managed to repel Gadhafi forces from in and around Benghazi. But do they believe that they're just going to, basically, reconstitute themselves and try and launch another attack on Benghazi? What are they saying to you in terms of fear level?

DAMON: Well, Isha, that concern does exist, but it exists at a much lesser level than it has in the past, especially given those strikes that we saw happening early in the morning, and then the opposition forces flowing down the highway, beginning to drive Gadhafi's troops back. These air strikes, the no-fly zone overhead -- and we have been hearing throughout the day the fighter jets overhead -- has really regalvanized, reenergized the opposition. They now do feel like the international community is behind them, that they do have the capabilities, the willpower, and now the backing to be able to ultimately end this.

And for them, the end would be, again, bringing down Gadhafi, setting up a proper government, they say, in Libya, a democratic government. But of course, there are concerns because many people tell us that Gadhafi has sleeper cells in various cities, loyalists who they are concerned might try to begin carrying out assassinations, might be issued -- might be receiving orders, rather, from Gadhafi to try to sow more unrest. So while people do have a lot of hope right now, there is the realization that this is just the beginning of a very long and very difficult path, Isha.

SESAY: Arwa Damon joining us there from Benghazi. Arwa, stay safe. Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Meantime, U.S. President Barack Obama is in Brazil getting briefings from his national security advisers about the military operations in Libya. Senior White House correspondent Ed Henry is traveling with the president on his Latin America trip, and he joins us now from Rio. Ed, what is the president planning to say, really, in a matter of minutes?

ED HENRY, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fred, he's going to be focused in that speech in a short time about the economic ties with Brazil and how there's sort of some commonality between the two countries, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and how the economies are getting closer and closer together, more trade relations. He's trying to expand that relationship to create even more U.S. jobs -- unlikely to really get into much substance on Libya there, like he did yesterday when he authorized the use of force by U.S. troops.

Instead, what he did this morning was have a secure national security briefing with some of his top aides. It included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joining by a secure conference call, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as well as the AFRICOM commander, General Carter Hamm, who we've been talking about this morning, one of the key leaders overseeing all of this.

The bottom line is what the White House is trying to do, even as they conduct this Latin America tour, is project the image of a president who is still staying on top of the situation in Libya, and also trying to project the image of a president who is reluctant to use force, basically had exhausted all other options and only did, you know, move forward on force because Colonel Gadhafi refused to actually engage in a ceasefire.

And if you listen closely to what the president said yesterday, he repeatedly used the word "coalition" to make this in sharp contrast to previous conflicts, where the U.S. was engaged in unilateral action. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am deeply aware of the risks of any military action, no matter what limits we place on it. 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 cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy and his forces step up their assaults on cities like Benghazi and Misrata, where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government. So we must be clear. Actions have consequences, and the writ of the international community must be enforced.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Interesting the president is not facing the criticism of rushing in. In fact, in this case, what he's facing back home, particularly in the U.S., are Republicans like John McCain, his former presidential rival, charging that this no-fly zone should have been instituted two weeks ago, Senator McCain saying on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION" that while the no-fly zone could still be effective, it's going to take more than that now to push Gadhafi out, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Ed Henry, thanks so much. Appreciate that -- from Rio de Janeiro.

Meantime, as we mentioned, President Obama is expected to make a speech to the people of Brazil in about a half an hour, maybe even under that. CNN will bring you his comments live as soon as he steps in front of those cameras.

SESAY: Well, the Arab League supported a no-fly zone, but now there seem to be conflicting statements coming out of that organization. So what support are they willing to give? What does that support really mean?

WHITFIELD: That's right. There's an emergency session taking place right now involving the Arab League in Cairo. We'll update you on exactly what is being said, what's being promised and what is -- do they remain tight-lipped on.

SESAY: Indeed.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) SESAY: Welcome back, everyone. The Arab League initially backed the no-fly zone, but today it's holding an emergency meeting, saying it needs to assess the situation.

Rami Khouri is the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University in Beirut. He joins us now from Amman, Jordan.

Great to have you with us, Rami. What are your thoughts on these comments made by Amre Moussa, the head of the Arab League, saying that what's happening in Libya is different from what was intended by imposing a no-fly zone? How are you reading these comments?

RAMI KHOURI, AMERICAN UNIV. OF BEIRUT: Well, I think it probably reflects a significant amount of either confusion or hypocrisy or incompetence on the part of Arab League. If they voted for something that they didn't know what it was, then we've got a real problem here, and we do have a real problem because the Arab League is an organization that represents the Arab governments, and the Arab governments have not done a very good job in the last half a century, and their people are now rising up against them and throwing them out one by one or asking for serious changes.

So I wouldn't put too much stock in what the Arab League says because the Arab League is not a very functional body. It doesn't have a lot of respect, and it has virtually no achievements to speak for in -- since its founding. This is an unfortunate situation. It's very sad for me, as an Arab, to admit this, but this is the reality. The majority of Arab people are very happy with what's going on, as long as the military action is designed to protect the civilians and stop the attacks on civilians by Gadhafi's troops. And that's what we should be focused on.

WHITFIELD: Well, this is Fredricka here. But you're not saying that it doesn't matter how the Arab League would take a stand on these military strikes. There were some conflicting reports that initially, the Arab League did not support all that has transpired in the last 24 hours, and then a correction came out as a result of this emergency meeting saying instead, that they haven't taken a stand on the air strike situation at all yet.

So once they do take a stand, are you saying it's not important or it's irrelevant, or is there, indeed, some impact from that statement?

KHOURI: Well, it's actually both. It's very important that the Arab League took a position asking for or supporting a no-fly zone. So that's really important because it provided the critical legitimacy that the international community needed, and the Security Council then acted upon, to actually then have a U.N. Security Council vote saying that all necessary means could be used to protect civilians in Libya. So that Arab League vote was very important.

The problem was that it provided the legitimacy for this process, but that legitimacy came from a whole bunch of Arab leaders who are experiencing thin or disappearing legitimacy among their own people. So I think you have to take it seriously at one level, but at the same time recognize that the Arab leaders don't speak for most of the Arab people in a very serious way. They're still legitimate to an extent, but that legitimacy is very thin. So you have to take them seriously, but at the same time recognize that these are leaders that essentially do whatever the international community generally asks them to do. And that's why you have these uprisings all over the Arab world.

SESAY: Rami, it's Isha here. As we wait to get the outcome of this meeting in which they're assessing the situation -- the Arab League, that is -- I mean, what is your view? Do you really expect to see any Arab troops, any active military involvement from Arab countries in this operation?

KHOURI: I don't personally expect that, no. We've got a long modern history of Arab countries acting militarily against other Arab countries, but helping each other collectively to ensure the rights of their people and their citizens is something that rarely happens in the Arab world. That's why the Arab League decision was such a welcome surprise. I mean, I was delighted that the Arab League took that decision.

But I don't expect to see them involved logistically or practically in implementing the no-fly zone or getting involved in the military action. One or two countries might send some money, some humanitarian aid, you know, something very symbolic. UAE and Qatar have been spoken of as two possible contributors to this process, but it'll be in a very symbolic way.

SESAY: Rami Khouri joining us there, from American University in Beirut. He's currently in Amman, Jordan. Rami, we appreciate it. Thank you for your time today.

WHITFIELD: And of course, we'll have much more coverage on Libya straight ahead. But of course, there's another catastrophic, colossal occurrence that occurred halfway around the world in Japan.

SESAY: Absolutely. We continue to closely follow events as they unfold on the ground there. This we want to tell you about -- two survivors trapped in their house for nine days pulled to safety earlier today. We'll have that, plus an update on that beleaguered nuclear plant. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Well get back to our continuing coverage of Libya in a moment, but first now an update on the crisis in Japan. The death toll from last week's earthquake and tsunami has climbed to nearly 8,300 people. More than 12,700 others are still missing.

SESAY: Absolutely incredible numbers there. Workers at the crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima are making progress in their battle to cool down reactors, but Japanese authorities say they may need to release more radioactive gas into the air.

WHITFIELD: The crisis is having a huge impact on the food supplies there. Japan is now banning the sale of spinach and raw milk from the area near the plant and it is restricting produce overall, that decision after radiation levels above the legal limit were detected in farm goods.

SESAY: Yes, a troubling development in a country struggling with food supplies. And an amazing story of survival -- nine days after the earthquake and survivors, medical workers rescued an 80-year-old woman and her grandson. The 16-year-old boy crawled through the rubble and climbed onto the roof of their home to alert rescuers. Just amazing.

Now, the CEO of Sony is praising the way Japanese are pulling together during this crisis. Sir Howard Stringer was a guest on CNN's "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: If you want the world to understand one thing about Japan, as the eyes of the world are focused on Japan, what would it be? What's the message you want them to take from all this?

SIR HOWARD STRINGER, CEO, SONY: Well, that it's remarkable that the community values and their values generate a kind of unselfishness that we always wish in a crisis. I don't want to compare it to somebody else's people, comparing it to the sort of bulldog spirit of Britain during the Battle of Britain. But that was a different kind of crisis, or in New York after 9/11.

I think they would be proud that the people worked together and reminded everyone of a sense of community which so easily evaporates in the frantic nature of all our societies. And I think that's why the press in particular has written so many anecdotes of people being courteous and thoughtful and kind to one another. And we all at various times of our life knew a period like that. And recapturing it is somehow soothing for the rest of the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESAY: Well, Sony is one of the world's biggest corporations. Its headquarters are in Tokyo.

U.S. officials say the no-fly zone in Libya is in place, so what does that mean for the political situation on the ground? We'll take you to Tripoli for a live report.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SESAY: Want to bring you the latest now on Libya and what's being called Operation Odyssey Dawn. More coalition planes are flying in the skies of Libya, firing missiles at Libyan military targets. But now Russia is urging those nations to stop the air strikes.

WHITFIELD: Meantime, more nations are continuing to the coalition efforts -- they're contributing, rather -- including Qatar, Italy and Canada. A top U.S. official told CNN the strategy now is to cut of logistical support for Colonel Gadhafi's forces.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ADM. MIKE MULLEN, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: The whole goal here is to, one, get it in place, two, be in a position so that he is unable to massacre his own civilians and that we effect the humanitarian support. So from that standpoint, the initial operations have been very effective.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESAY: Well, Colonel Gadhafi is promising to fight back against what he calls "terrorists" attacking his country. In a speech Sunday, he referred to coalition nations as, quote, "the new Nazis."

Well, CNN's senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, and he joins us now. Nic, it would seem that even though there is this no-fly zone in effect, the coalition has started this operation, Colonel Gadhafi, at least from his comments today -- he appears to be digging in.

ROBERTSON: He is. He's trying to rally his country behind him and rally the region, as well. And he is calling this a "crusader war, which is really the type of language that he's trying to use to make people here believe that the country is actually going to be invaded, although we hear from international forces that they're not going to put troops on the ground here. Moammar Gadhafi is casting it for his people here as if that's what they should expect, that's what they should brace for. And he's using the strikes that have happened so far to rally support behind him.

We are told we're shortly going to hear here in a press conference from a spokesman at least from the foreign ministry and somebody from the army, so we may get a further assessment on the government's read on the situation. But really, at the moment, the -- calling this a "crusader war," telling his people that they are the victims and they will be victorious and telling them they have the support of Africa and the Middle East and Asia, as well, and even people in Europe is really trying to bolster support for him at this time, when he is being put under pressure.

Of course, there are people in this city and across the country who don't believe him and don't trust him and say that they're too afraid to voice their opinions, their true opinions at this time. But this is what the country is being told, to rally behind the leadership -- Isha.

SESAY: And Nic, these comments made by the Arab League, which initially seemed to suggest that there was a change in their position of support for this operation, and then now we're hearing from Amre Moussa that they're reassessing the situation on the ground -- I mean, do we anticipate that Colonel Gadhafi will be looking to take advantage of any kind of schism, if that, indeed, materializes in this coalition?

ROBERTSON: This sort of talk that he's hearing from the Arab League right now will effectively be music to his ears. This is what he wants. He wants more international support against the coalition that's arrayed against him. Through all of it, his officials here have said, Send international monitors. Send international monitors. We want an independent version of what's happening in the country to be known, to be broadcast. They don't trust international broadcasters. Their state media isn't trusted outside the country. So they've been demanding international monitors come here.

So now for Moammar Gadhafi to hear that the Arab League is voicing concerns over what the coalition is doing at the moment in terms of air strikes will be support for him, and this is something that he will very likely want to build upon not only internally, to show his countrymen, that he's got international support, but also externally, anything to relieve this military pressure that he's facing right now, Isha.

SESAY: CNN international correspondent Nic Robertson joining us there from Tripoli. Thank you, Nic.

WHITFIELD: Some evidence of material destruction just east of Tripoli in Benghazi. That's where we find our Arwa Damon joining from us the rebel stronghold. What's taking place there now?

DAMON: Well, Fredricka, Benghazi is fairly quiet, as it has been since the opposition managed to drive out Gadhafi's army yesterday. What we saw earlier today was the aftermath of French air strikes on Colonel Gadhafi's military that was massed outside of Benghazi, eyewitnesses saying they were preparing to launch another attack on the city, many of the people that we ran into there expressing their gratitude to the international community for stepping in like this, also wanting to put out the message that they do realize the propaganda they say that Colonel Gadhafi is putting out, these claims of civilian casualties.

The message from here they're telling us that they want to be put out to the world is that they believe that these strikes that they can see so far have been right on target. They firmly believe that if these air strikes had not taken place, at this point in time, we would have been seeing a massacre happening in Benghazi, the opposition holding off Gadhafi's military for as long as it possibly could have, but saying that without this international support, they could not have stood up against his military machine for much longer -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Well, Arwa, I wonder about the citizens there in Benghazi. Are they leaving their homes? Are they fearful to even take sides? Or is it very clear that they are either in favor of the rebels who have taken over their town, or are they showing any allegiance to Gadhafi in any way?

DAMON: Well, Fredricka, the rebels, as you call them, the opposition as they are called here, is mainly made up of residents of Benghazi, of civilians, as we keep hearing them emphasize to us. They say that they are nothing more than ordinary citizens who were forced to take up arms over the last few weeks quite simply because they had no other means of self-defense.

By and large, the majority of the population of Benghazi most definitely does stand behind the opposition. There are some sleeper cells, as they're referred to here, of Gadhafi supporters who the opposition tells us do their best to try to wreak (ph) chaos. There are some claims that they have carried out targeted assassinations. What we saw yesterday when Colonel Gadhafi's army was advancing and did, in fact, enter into Benghazi was a small portion of the population fleeing to safety because they feared this onslaught, people firmly believing that Gadhafi fully intends to massacre anyone who has dared stand against him. But a lot of those people that fled the violence yesterday have since returned, believing that now the opposition has a fighting chance of holding on not just to Benghazi but continuing their advance towards Tripoli, especially because of this international support, many people, when they hear the fighter jets overhead, no longer fearful because they know that it's not Gadhafi's forces who are flying above them. It is now international forces, and they look up and they have one thing to say, and that is, Thank you -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Arwa Damon, thanks so much, in Benghazi -- Isha.

SESAY: Well, we are hearing dramatic accounts of the allied air strikes. Here's just one of them. We're withholding the witness's name out of security concerns.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: To be honest, I was asleep. I woke up on the sound of the explosion. I tried to run and see what's happening. And I could see -- I saw, actually, one of the explosions, one of the fires. It was a very scary thing, especially that there is an anti- craft (SIC) shooting against them. I saw a couple of the -- I don't know what to call it, but it was a very bright light. And I could see -- I could see some of the airplanes (ph). I saw them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESAY: Well, Colonel Gadhafi called the allied forces, quote, "terrorists" and animals attacking a safe nation that has done nothing against them. Strong words from Gadhafi.

WHITFIELD: CNN's U.S. Pentagon correspondent is standing by to explain the U.S. role in all of this. Plus, a live report from Cairo on how Arab countries as a whole are responding now that the no-fly zone is being enforced.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to speak at any moment now to the people of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. And of course, we're watching. There's the setting right there. Folks are in position, but no president as yet.

SESAY: No president as yet. We expect him shortly, we hope. He's meeting with Brazilian leaders and making a case for (ph) increasing U.S. economic productivity even as he keeps a very close eye on the crisis in Libya. We had our Ed Henry on, telling us that he's been getting briefings while he's been there. We're going to, of course, bring you that speech live as soon as it gets under way.

WHITFIELD: All right, meantime, 19 U.S. warplanes were used in these air strikes that have been carried out in the last 24 hours, including stealth bombers and fighter jets to help execute the U.S. military component of this coalition.

SESAY: Indeed. An important point to stress there, the U.S. themselves stressing that this is a coalition effort (INAUDIBLE) unique capabilities. But they are driving it right now but plan to take a back seat.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence. Chris, as we were just telling our viewers, the U.S. keen to stress that while they're in the lead now, they plan to take a back seat.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Exactly, Isha. You know, the words that Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, used earlier was "recede into the background." And by that, he means that there are certain capabilities that the U.S. will continue to provide -- humanitarian assistance, helping some of those planes refuel. Remember, we were hearing that some of the planes were coming from France, from England. It's a long way to go, and the longer they fly to get there, the less time they can spend over Libyan air space. So U.S. planes can be used to help them refuel in mid-air.

Also, some of the signal jamming, electronic jamming capabilities that the U.S. has to disrupt not only Colonel Gadhafi's ability to communicate with his forces but also any remaining surface-to-air capability to shoot down some of those planes. Some of the electronic signals can continue to be jammed by the assets that the U.S. military has.

But right, now of, you know, the last 12 hours, the U.S. military still very much involved at this point, as you mentioned, 19 U.S. warplanes hitting multiple targets within Libya. We're also told that they hit some ground targets, believing that Colonel Gadhafi's ground forces have some mobile missile launchers that could be used to fire on some of those planes, and so there was an attack on some of his ground forces today, as well.

WHITFIELD: So, Chris, the U.S. feels like it made a significant impact on putting a dent into Gadhafi's air support system. And at the same time, were there any casualties on the ground during this operation?

LAWRENCE: We believe there were casualties, although it's interesting in that they used these Tomahawk missiles initially. And they used to mix up the old Tomahawk missiles and the new Tomahawk missiles. The new ones have the ability to be reprogrammed in flight. So normally, you program the Tomahawk with a specific target, you launch it. It can loiter around and then fire on its target, maneuvering around any obstacles. But the newer ones have the ability to be reprogrammed. So if you get new intelligence, new information that suggests you don't want to fire in that direction, you can reprogram it.

Well, they didn't have to use that capability, which would sort of suggest that they were fairly confident that what they were hitting were airbases, were military targets of the regime, not so much populated civilian centers. WHITFIELD: All right, Chris Lawrence, thanks so much, from the Pentagon. Appreciate that update.

SESAY: Well, reports that the head of the 22-nation Arab League is now critical of initial air strikes of Libyan military targets could become a significant political setback. The Arab League backed the no-fly zone just last week. Let's bring in CNN's Reza Sayah. He's live from Cairo, Egypt, with details on what we know. Reza, bring us up to speed with what we're hearing about the Arab League's position. Any more clarification?

REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, again, there's conflicting reports and accounts, and we're trying to sift through those. But like you said, this could be a significant setback for the coalition, for this operation. And we'll know how significant of a setback depending what happens over the next few hours. But it seems as if at least some Arab countries are not happy with what they have been seeing over the past 24 hours with the implementation of this no-fly zone over Libya.

Of course, it's been a very emphatic, aggressive and active initial stage, with strikes coming from the air and sea, so much so that some could perceive it as a military offensive. There are some reports that the Arab League, a bloc of 22 Arab nations, its leader, Amre Moussa, has been critical of these past 24 hours, saying, We were not looking for a military intervention, we were only looking for a no-fly zone that would protect civilians, in those reports, Amre Moussa quoted as saying, What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.

The Arab League, its headquarters, is right here in Cairo. And we understand that the Arab League is in an emergency meeting. Of course, Amre Moussa is part of those meetings. An Arab League official talking to CNN has a little bit of a different account. He's saying the Arab League has not come out with an official position. They are assessing and evaluating, he says, the events of the past 24 hours. And once they've completed that assessment, they're going to come out with an official position.

So some conflicting accounts there. But in, indeed, Isha, the Arab League comes out and condemns and is critical of this operation, of this no-fly zone over Libya, it would certainly mean some political problems and diplomatic problems for this coalition, for this operation, Isha.

SESAY: Well, Reza, let me ask you this. Should we be in a situation where the Arab League is, indeed, qualifying its support for this coalition operation there on the ground, how much would it change the way this operation is viewed by the Arab street, the Arab public? You're in the region. What are people saying?

SAYAH: I think right now in the Arab street, generally speaking, there is support for this no-fly zone if it's designed and if it achieves the end goal of saving civilian lives. Remember, even on the Arab street, Gadhafi is viewed as a madman who kills his own people. There's no love lost there. I think the key is civilian lives. If these coalition forces in their strikes happen to kill civilians -- and that's certainly a possibility -- and then you combine that with the Arab League coming out and being critical of these operations, that could possibly shift the sentiment on the Arab street, Isha.

SESAY: Reza Sayah joining us there from Cairo, Egypt. We're awaiting some more information from this Arab League meeting that we understand is ongoing. Reza, appreciate it, as always. Thank you.

WHITFIELD: All right, meantime, missions continue to go on over the skies of Libya. Some of the jets enforcing no-fly zone, by the way, are taking off from a U.S. base in Sicily, Italy. It's a very busy place right now. We're going to take you there live for a report.

SESAY: And stay with CNN tonight. A two-hour special (INAUDIBLE) "Libya War," hosted by our very own Wolf Blitzer. It's tonight at 8:00 PM Eastern. Stay with us.

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WHITFIELD: Trapani, Sicily, is home to a NATO base and a U.S. naval air station, and right now, it's a strategic gathering point for countries helping to enforce that no-fly zone.

SESAY: That's right. CNN's Diana Magnay is at the U.S. base in Trapani, and she joins us now. Diana (INAUDIBLE) on what's going on there. We know that a number of planes taking off from that location.

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Isha. Yes, I'm in Trapani, on the western corner of Sicily. And from here, it's just a short flight over to the no-fly zone and the area around Benghazi. There are seven Canadian F-18 Hornet fighter jets which landed here yesterday, and they are preparing for a possible deployment tonight, the Canadian spokesman here on base told me. And also, we know from the Italian defense minister that here at Trapani, there are eight Italian fighter jets which will also be made available for coalition demands as of midnight, so in just a few hours' time tonight.

This is also the home of the Italian air force's F-16s. It's also the NATO home in Italy for the AWACS surveillance planes, which you might not be able to see just behind me. But they have for the last couple of weeks been doing 24/7 surveillance of the central Mediterranean also, of course, from international airspace into Libya as this crisis has escalated.

This base is one of seven across Italy that the Italians are making available to the coalition. Mr. Berlusconi has said that he is also proposing Naples as the coalition command center. As of now, though, apparently, there is a sort of a shared planning amongst those partners involved in Operation Odyssey Dawn, no actual coalition command established as of yet. But there is expected to be a coalition -- single coalition command named over the coming days, Isha.

SESAY: All right, Diana Magnay, joining us there from Trapani, Sicily. Diana, thank you. Well, opponents of Libya's government are using any means available to get their message out.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did somebody help you with this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Actually, I just started step by step. I don't know how. A guy offered the equipment, a guy offered the cameras, a guy -- every guy -- I told you, when they knew that I was live on CNN and people saw it on CNN, they all came here running. They were, like, Mohammed (ph), what do you need? We would like to help.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: More on this man's story and what he's doing right after this.

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