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The Situation Room
NATO to Assume Control of Libya No-Fly Zone; Interview with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen
Aired March 24, 2011 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, breaking news: As coalition aircraft pound targets in Libya, the U.S. and key allies reach a tentative deal for NATO to take over command of the operation. But there are already questions whether the agreement will hold. We're awaiting a statement from the NATO secretary-general, as well as the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. We will bring you both statements live.
Congressional critics have been slamming the White House over its handling of the Libya crisis. If NATO does take control, will that take some of the heat off of President Obama?
And an international tribunal investigates Moammar Gadhafi and his inner circle for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
The U.S. may soon be able to hand over leadership of the Libya operation, or it may take a little longer. A deal in principle, we are now told, has been reached for NATO to assume command of the military mission in the coming days.
There's been some diplomatic wrangling at this, the last moment, over the exact nature of the mission. We're awaiting a statement from the NATO secretary general, as well as the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. We will bring it to you live. We're standing by for that.
In a related development, France says its fighter jets destroy a Libyan combat aircraft that was in violation of the no-fly mandate. The Libyan jet was struck with missiles as it was landing at an airfield in Misrata.
Meantime, the allies are pressing ahead with their campaign now in its sixth day. Earlier, Libyan state TV showed this video of what it says is a military base in flames, reportedly a result of airstrikes in Tripoli.
BLITZER: And joining us now, Nic Robertson -- he's joining us from Tripoli -- and Arwa Damon in Benghazi. Nic, first to you. We saw, we heard the tracer fire just a little while ago. What's the latest?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the latest from here is that we have seen at least one heavy explosion. It's not clear where it was in the city, but quite possibly close to us.
There was a smaller explosion before, a burst of anti-aircraft gunfire. But what we have heard from witnesses about the bombing last night and what we're -- what we're hearing from government officials, the targeting in Tripoli at the moment seems to be -- seems to be focused on a military airfield, large military airfield in the east of the city taking out communications equipment, and a military base on the west of the city, where witnesses have seen columns of smoke rising from earlier bombardments, Wolf.
BLITZER: Arwa, you were with the rebels today in Eastern Libya. Did you get any sense that they're making a dent in their fight against Gadhafi's forces?
ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not outside of Ajdabiya, where we were, Wolf. No, it doesn't seem as if -- they're not -- the de facto front line there really only moving forward a very short distance. They're still being bogged down, challenged by the same issues they were facing 24 hours ago.
And that is this small unit, as they describe it, of Gadhafi's troops, the number of tanks that have literally dug themselves in at the northern gate to Ajdabiya. We have seen the opposition trying to launch small attacks from the sides. Each time one of their convoys moves out, it comes under tank and artillery attack. They're forced back.
And so it doesn't seem as if they have the military strategy in place just yet to be able to tackle this one small unit. And of course this is very concerning if this is going to be a trend moving ahead. How is it that these opposition fighters saying that lack the proper equipment and training are going to be able to clear all of these cities and towns of Gadhafi's troops if they're this bogged down by one small unit? -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Nic, Gadhafi's media, they keep saying the coalition, the U.S. and the others, are killing innocent civilians in Libya. Have you seen any evidence of that?
ROBERTSON: We haven't, Wolf. What we were taken to see today is an example of how the government tries to make this point and tries to prove this point, that civilians are being killed.
But it cannot offer any credible evidence. We went to a mass funeral today for more than 30 people. And we were told by government officials that this was a funeral for soldiers and civilians killed in coalition bombing.
We weren't able to find any family members there at all among the hundreds of people gathered at this funeral. There was far more anger than grief. We weren't able to find out any details about any of the people who were being buried, who they were exactly, how they died, when they died.
Certainly, when I was at the grave site, when a couple of people were buried -- and, traditionally here, people are taken out of the coffin and buried wrapped in a shroud. So, we were able to see that these were -- appeared large, appeared quite heavy. They appeared to be men of fighting age. That's all we know. That's all we could see. And that was a couple of the bodies.
So, really, the government hasn't yet been able to show precisely, concisely and decisively in any way that they have had civilian casualties. It's not to say that it hasn't happened. It's just they're not able to show it, Wolf.
BLITZER: And, Arwa, does -- do the rebel commanders you're talking to care whether the U.S. or NATO is in control of this operation?
DAMON: No, Wolf. As far as we can tell, as far as what they're telling us, they don't. There's one thing that they care about. And that is that the operation continues.
They still desperately are going to need the no-fly zone. They still are going to need those ongoing airstrikes. And so that is their one main focus, because, without that, as has been evident, they most certainly will be driven back and eventually defeated by Gadhafi's forces.
So, the critical component is not who is running the operation, but that the operation is taking in fact place and continues to take place, Wolf.
BLITZER: And it is continuing to take place. Arwa, thanks very much. Nic, thanks to both -- to you as well.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: All right, it's official now. NATO has reached an agreement to take over the no-fly zone operation over Libya. They have worked all day to make sure that they have everyone on board.
We are now told that NATO has decided to take charge from the United States. Specifically, there will be a broad coalition of not only NATO allies, but others from outside of NATO, who will participate in making sure that civilians in Libya, civilians in Libya will be protected.
They have -- they say -- NATO says that all members, all members of NATO are now in agreement that they will take charge. This has been very important for the Obama administration. The president of the United States, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, in recent -- since this operation began almost a week ago, they said the U.S. would be in charge only for a matter of days; then someone else would take charge. It was unclear who would take charge.
But now we know who will take charge. It will be NATO, together with some non-NATO members who will participate. Only within the past hour or so, the United Arab Emirates said it will send 12 jet fighters to participate in the operation, in the no-fly zone operation, six F- 16s, U.S.-made F-16s, six French-made Mirage jet fighters.
The United Arab Emirates will join militarily. And -- and, earlier, Qatar -- earlier, Qatar said it will participate militarily, two members of the Arab League.
We're standing by to go to Brussels to speak with the NATO secretary-general, Anders Rasmussen. We'll get to him -- in fact, I think we're -- he's ready right now.
Secretary-General, this is Wolf in Washington, can you hear me?
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL: Yes, I hear you, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right.
So tell us, Secretary-General, what NATO has now agreed to. We know you were in hectic meetings all day. What is the -- what is the announcement you're ready to tell our viewers here in the United States and around the world?
RASMUSSEN: NATO has now decided to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. We are taking action as part of the broad international effort to protect the civilians against the attacks by the Gadhafi regime. We will cooperate closely with our partners in the region and we welcome their contributions.
All NATO allies are committed to fulfill their commitments under the U.N. resolution, and that's why we have decided to assume responsibility for the no-fly zone.
BLITZER: When does NATO assume this responsibility from the United States?
RASMUSSEN: We have done all the necessary preparations so we can take over in a couple of days.
BLITZER: By this weekend, you will be -- NATO will be in charge.
Will the overall NATO commander be someone from France, from Britain, someone from Denmark, where you're from? Who will be in charge?
RASMUSSEN: We will use the already established NATO chain of command.
BLITZER: So -- so who will be the commander of the operation?
RASMUSSEN: Yes, that's for the military authorities to -- to decide. The NATO Council does not make -- make that decision. BLITZER: Do you know if they have already made that --
RASMUSSEN: But the --
BLITZER: -- decision, Secretary-General?
RASMUSSEN: Yes, but we will use the already established NATO framework, which means that it is a NATO supreme commander who will be the overall responsible.
He is, by the way, an American, but a NATO commander.
BLITZER: So -- well, I -- I want to be precise, because we know that the NATO supreme allied commander is always an American. So are you saying that this operation will be commanded by the U.S. -- the U.S. commander of NATO?
RASMUSSEN: No -- yes, it will be a NATO command.
But I also have to say that we will include contributing partners from the region in -- in -- in this operation. It's of utmost importance to stress that this is not primarily a NATO operation. It is an inter -- a broad international effort in which we will include partners from the region that have pledged to contribute to this protection of civilians in Libya.
BLITZER: Now, so the operation will be consistent with what's been going on for the past week, almost a week, in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, that it will not only create a no-fly zone, but will use all necessary means to protect civilians in Libya; is that correct?
RASMUSSEN: What we have decided today is that NATO will enforce the no-fly zone. We are considering whether NATO should take on that broader responsibility, but that decision has not been made yet.
BLITZER: Well, it sounds like --
RASMUSSEN: The decision that has been --
BLITZER: -- that there's a --
RASMUSSEN: -- made is --
BLITZER: It sounds like there's a --
RASMUSSEN: -- to take on --
BLITZER: -- dispute with -- among the NATO allies, whether this other responsibility to protect civilians in Libya, whether that should be the responsibility of NATO or someone else should take that responsibility.
Is that a fair description?
RASMUSSEN: No. There is no split. On the contrary, there is a unity within NATO. We have decided, all 28 allies, that we will take on the responsibility for the no-fly zone. We are, right now, considering whether we should take on the broader responsibility within the U.N. Security Council resolution.
But, anyway, it will take place a part of that broad international effort to protect civilians.
BLITZER: Because during these first six days, as you know, Secretary-General, if Gadhafi's tanks were moving against rebel forces or their artillery was going in towards areas controlled by the rebels, firing their weapons, planes would go in -- whether French planes, U.S. planes, British planes -- and attack those ground forces of the Libyan military.
Is -- what you're saying is that there's no agreement yet on whether this new NATO operation would authorize those kinds of attacks on Libyan government forces?
RASMUSSEN: What we have decided today is to take responsibility for the no-fly zone with the aim to protect civilians by closing the air space for all flights, except aid flights, all with the aim to protect civilians.
Of course, we can act in self defense. We have not decided yet whether we will take on the broader responsibility.
This means that right at this moment you will have two operations. We have taken on responsibility for the no-fly zone, while the coalition still continues its activities.
But as I told you, we are considering whether we should take on that broader responsibility. However, that decision has not been made yet.
BLITZER: All right. Well, I think you're very clear and I understand what you're saying, that NATO will be in charge of the no- fly zone, but the United States and its coalition partners, at least for now, until NATO makes a final decision, will continue to be in charge of protecting civilians from Libyan tanks or artillery or -- or any ground fire, and if they want to send in planes to -- to destroy those tanks, that will not be the NATO operation, that will be a separate coalition operation.
I think I'm clear as to what you're saying, but correct me if I'm wrong, Secretary-General.
RASMUSSEN: Yes, but I would add that we are actually considering, right now, whether we should take on that broader responsibility in cooperation with partners from the region.
BLITZER: And when do you think you'll make that final decision on expanding the NATO operation to include this -- this other mission?
RASMUSSEN: I -- without predicting the outcome of our deliberations, I think we might be able to take that decision within the coming days. BLITZER: Within the coming days.
All right, well, thank you very much for joining us.
Anders Rasmussen is the NATO secretary-general, the former prime minister -- prime minister of Denmark, is that right?
RASMUSSEN: Yes, indeed.
BLITZER: And we --
RASMUSSEN: You're welcome. Thank you.
BLITZER: We've met here in Washington and he's a very good man. And he was generous to -- to share the -- the news with all of us here on CNN around the world.
The secretary-general of NATO, Anders Rasmussen.
BLITZER: We're standing by for the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Now she's getting ready to speak over at the State Department about this new NATO deal to take charge of the no-fly zone. I'm being specific. NATO is getting ready to take charge of the no- fly zone.
The other separate military operation, at least for now, remains under U.S. military command -- much more of the breaking news coverage right after this.
BLITZER: You heard the breaking news live here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the NATO secretary-general, Anders Rasmussen, announcing here on CNN that NATO has reached an agreement to take over operation of the no-fly zone over Libya, no agreement yet among the NATO allies on whether to go ahead and launch attacks against Libyan ground forces, tanks, artillery, that may be threatening opposition the rebels. But they will take charge of the no-fly zone. You heard that here.
Let's -- let's discuss what's going on. And the breaking news is significant.
Joining us right now, our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence, our White House correspondent Dan Lothian, and Reza Sayah. He's in Benghazi right now, where the opposition is headquartered in Eastern Libya.
Reza, let me go to you first. It sounds a little complicated. But from the rebels' perspective, I assume they're happy that not only will NATO be in charge of the no-fly zone, but the U.S., Britain, France, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, other countries will continue their operation designed to protect civilians.
REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as long as this operation is in place, as long as there's international intervention, these opposition forces are happy. But what is remarkable is a very critical fact that continues to be ignored. It's never talked about when you listen to NATO officials, Pentagon officials, the Obama administration, coalition officials. And that's the stated intention, the stated mission of these opposition forces.
And that is, they want to continue to fight. They want a war. And they want to take war to Moammar Gadhafi and his regime and they want to topple him. And that's something that is usually buried in the headlines when you hear about the scorekeeping of this battle, all the details of this combat. Those are certainly interesting and important.
But what can't be ignored is the fact that these opposition forces want a war to continue. And that brings up a whole lot of questions. When you look at U.N. Resolution 1973, its stated intention, that it wants to end the bloodshed, when you listen to the Obama administration, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, saying that the intention is to end the bloodshed, but you have opposition forces saying they want to continue the war, the question is, how do you end the bloodshed, when one side wants to continue the fight?
And that brings up of course a whole lot of questions. The critics are asking, where is this going? When is it going to end? How is it going to end?
BLITZER: Reza, stand by.
Dan Lothian is at the White House.
The White House, the president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, they have said repeatedly over the past few days that it would be a matter of days the U.S. handed over responsibility, the command responsibility, to someone else.
Now we know that NATO will be in charge of the no-fly zone, but NATO is not -- at least not yet -- you heard the secretary-general say NATO will not be in charge of the other part of the operation, protecting the civilians from Gadhafi's ground forces.
I don't know if you have had a chance, Dan, to get any reaction from the White House, but it sounds like the U.S. will still be in charge of a big part of this operation.
DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It does sound like that, Wolf. And as you pointed out, this is still unfolding and very complicated.
And how does that jibes with what we heard from Jay Carney earlier today during a briefing with reporters that U.S. planes would not be involved in this second phase of the mission there in Libya, that it would really be sort of an assist and support role, that they would provide intelligence or jamming capabilities?
So, these are questions that we will be asking. In addition to that, Wolf, it will be interesting to see how all of this lines up with the real desire of this administration. And that's to see a Libya without Moammar Gadhafi. You have heard that from the president and other senior administration officials, saying that he must go.
Yet, he has dug in his heels, shows no signs of going away. So how will this second phase lead to the desire of this administration to see Gadhafi out of Libya? And I think it's unclear at this point how that will eventually happen.
BLITZER: Lots of questions that have to be answered. And the Pentagon is going to have to answer a lot of these questions.
Chris Lawrence is our man at the Pentagon.
For all practical purposes, Chris, Pentagon planners, Pentagon commanders have been saying now for days that they have effectively destroyed Libya's air defense system. Basically, their air force is not flying anymore. So, maintaining this no-fly zone over Libya doesn't look like it's going to be all that difficult of an operation right now.
The real difficulty will be making sure that Gadhafi's ground forces don't endanger civilians, whether in Benghazi or other cities in Libyan right now. And I assume, at least if you believe what the secretary-general of NATO says, NATO hasn't yet committed itself to take on that responsibility, I'm told, by the way, because Turkey, among others, a NATO ally, doesn't want NATO to take over the responsibility of going after Gadhafi's ground forces.
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: No. That's right, Wolf.
That's still going to be handled by the coalition. I think Reza made a great point in talking, in pointing out the ultimate aim of the opposition. Just yesterday, we were speaking with some of the U.S. military commanders in the field. And they said, look, we have seen some of these opposition forces that now have tanks, that now have armor, heavy armor.
And he said, I don't believe at this point those units would still be covered under the protect civilian clause. He also talked about a challenge, a very challenging situation that could develop if and when the opposition begins to go on the offensive, if they begin to advance. What happens then if the rebels then become a danger to other Libyan civilians?
What's going to happen then? There are some extremely challenging questions to be worked out. And if NATO doesn't take the umbrella mission, if you have got sort of a separate command-and- control, that could only make things more difficult, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by, because we're going to continue to follow the breaking news.
The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, getting ready to speak and explain the U.S. position on all of this over at the State Department. We will go there. We will hear what Hillary Clinton has to say about all of this, much more of the breaking news -- a tentative deal.
NATO will be in charge of the no-fly zone, but not -- not -- of the ground -- the attack on the Libyan ground forces endangering civilians in Libya.
Much more of our coverage after this.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news out of NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Let's go to CNN's -- Paula Newton is standing by.
Paula, the NATO secretary-general broke the news here on CNN just a little while ago in THE SITUATION ROOM. He said NATO has agreed that it will take over the no-fly zone operation, but not the broader mission to make sure that civilians are protected from Gadhafi's ground forces.
You're getting more details. What are you hearing?
PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Let's talk about what will happen next, no-fly in place. They should be able to be operational on that by Sunday night. That transfers to NATO.
Next, they have sent a directive to the military chain of command here to ask for options on a more robust role. They're calling it here no-fly-plus. What does that mean? That they will see under which conditions and operationally how they can do it, to bomb other targets if they need to, depending on that key point about protecting civilians on the ground in Libya.
But what will happen, Wolf, is that although all 28 nations would have to agree to any of those targets and how it's executed, individual countries can pull out and say, look, we're not taking part on this. Maybe France and Britain can go ahead and bomb these targets, but we will withdrawal our planes from this specific mission.
But they're hoping that it does give them a lot of latitude to act. What they want to do is make sure that NATO has the full capacity to act under the conditions of that U.N. resolution.
The only thing I can tell you is very interesting. They do expect to make Turkish air bases operational for this. And this is very significant as far as NATO...
BLITZER: I think we just lost Paula Newton in Brussels. But we got the gist of it, what she was saying. The Turkish air bases would be operational as part of this NATO operation to maintain the no-fly zone over Libya. But I suspect the Turks will not allow their bases to be used for ground attacks against Gadhafi's ground forces -- air attacks against Gadhafi's ground forces. We'll reconnect with Paula and double check on that.
Let's bring in retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, who served in several administrations. What do you make of this arrangement that Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, announced and now the little bit more detail we got from Paula Newton?
BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK KIMMITT (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Frankly, I was shocked when I heard it. It will make things more difficult for the commanders on the ground, not easier. Thank God we have commanders like Jim Stavridis of NATO.
BLITZER: He's the NATO supreme allied commander.
KIMMITT: He's NATO supreme allied commander. And Carter Ham, then, at Africom, because they now have been given a mission of de- confliction, which you never want to put onto a commander.
BLITZER: What does that mean?
KIMMITT: Think about Libya as a big open area that now needs to be divided between two separate military commands: the U.S. military command, which will continue to be responsible for humanitarian mission, which also could include ground-to-air attacks against the tanks, air-to-ground attacks against the tanks; and the logistics line.
At the same time, NATO is supposed to be patrolling the no-fly zone, which could be in exactly the same air space. So it's going to take very careful coordination, very technical coordination through our air command control systems.
But at the end of the day, it's going to be tough for two separate four stars running two separate operations on the same terrain with airplanes moving at the speed that are moving for this operation.
BLITZER: But I assume that the American commander of the African Command, General Carter Ham, and the NATO supreme allied commander, who's also an American, they talk to each other, they work with each other, and they can make sure that -- that the planes don't, for example, attack each other accidentally.
KIMMITT: Well, they certainly will be talking now. And that will be absolutely essential so that this de-confliction between those forces, those friendly forces, happens without major incident. It will happen. I'm confident that they'll get the procedures worked out.
But this is just, as we say in the military, putting additional rocks in the rucksack for these two commanders to try to execute this mission.
One of the principles of the military is the principle of unity of command. One commander is in charge. In this case we have two commanders in charge: one who answers to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; another one that answers back to the United States secretary of defense.
So it's difficult. But thank God we've got seasoned commanders like Jim Stavridis and Carter Ham to work through these difficulties.
BLITZER: And the NATO supreme allied commander is in Brussels. The commander of the Africa command is in Stuttgart, Germany. So they're not even in the same place. They're in two different locations.
KIMMITT: Well, not necessarily, because Jim Stavridis is dual headed. He is also the European commander in his U.S. hat, which happens to be within five miles of Carter Ham there in Stuttgart, Germany.
BLITZER: So he can go to the European Command and take over his responsibility as head of what they call Eucon?
KIMMITT: He could. But again, he will be doing this wearing his NATO hat. So my suspicion, and my strong -- I'm strongly confident that he'll be doing this out of Brussels, answering to the North Atlantic Council.
BLITZER: So it sounds to me like Turkey, for example, was strongly opposed to NATO going beyond the no-fly zone, but going after air-to-ground activities in Libya.
KIMMITT: Well, I don't think it was just Turkey. Behind the scenes at NATO, there are 28 different countries, and they all have 28 different agendas. In this case, the Turkish agenda that they did not want to attack Muslim people with their aircraft may have predominated in this debate but could well be that other countries sort of hid behind the Turkish arguments to mass their own agenda, as well.
But for the moment, two missions. No-fly being conducted by NATO. Air-to-ground...
BLITZER: And as a retired U.S. Army general, what I hear you saying is that this convoluted arrangement is going to not -- is going to hurt U.S. military personnel.
KIMMITT: No. It's just going to make the mission more difficult.
BLITZER: Well, that's going to hurt -- if it makes it more difficult that's going to hurt U.S. military personnel.
KIMMITT: Well, but that's why we have seasoned commanders like -- like Ham and Stavridis that are going to work their way through it in a -- in a manner that protects our soldiers. But that's just, again, as we say, an additional burden that we're putting on these commanders, that if there was a single chain of command, unity of command in this operation, they wouldn't be taking that additional burden on.
BLITZER: All right. General Kimmitt, thanks for coming in.
KIMMITT: Thank you.
BLITZER: Appreciate it.
Remember, we're standing by to hear from the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. She's getting ready to make a statement over at the State Department. We'll go there live. You're looking at those live pictures, the Treaty Room over at the State Department. But as soon as she walks to that microphone, you will see her. You will hear her here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Also, an unsung hero of the Libyan rebels. How his suicide attack may have turned the tide.
BLITZER: You're looking at live pictures of the State Department over there. That's the Treaty Room. The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, getting ready to make a statement to the nation on this NATO agreement to take charge of the no-fly zone over Libya, but not to broaden it, at least for now. We'll hear her reaction, her statement live here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Since allied air strikes began, the Libyan opposition has consolidated its hold over Benghazi. That's the country's second largest city, a city of some 800,000 people. People there have openly demonstrated in support of the air campaign, but the rebels say their stronghold was secured in large part by the actions of one hero.
CNN's Reza Sayah is in Benghazi. We must caution you right now that his report contains some disturbing images.
REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Rebel fighters in street clothes going head to head with a Libyan army tank. The amateur video, reportedly shot last week, a dramatic glimpse of the war for Libya, pitting civilians against Gadhafi's heavily armed forces.
Despite being severely outgunned, this is what rebel fighters did last month to the regime's military barracks in what is now the opposition capital of Benghazi. The destruction of the compound, the turning point in the fight for the key city.
To many here, Ahmed Al Mehdi (ph) was the hero of that fight. A 49-year-old oil company worker, husband, father of two, the best way to help the opposition, he decided, was to sacrifice his life.
His two teenage daughters say they had no idea what their father had planned. His wife, too distraught to appear on camera.
"We're not able to express how much we miss him," says Sajeda.
"We miss him a lot," says her sister Zahur (ph). "He was with us every moment of our lives." This is where Al Medhi Zu (ph) gave his life. It's the old military barracks here in Benghazi. It's pretty much demolished today. But on February 19, rebel fighters had surrounded it, and they were facing heavy fire power. They were trying to get inside these military barracks. They couldn't. They needed something to shift their momentum.
What Ah Mehdi did was pack his car full of plastic car fuel containers and cooking gas cylinders. And witnesses say he parked his car right over there where the SUV is and prayed and read the Koran for about 30 minutes, and then he sped towards the main gate where he blew himself and his car up.
This is a picture of Al Mehdi's best friend, Abdul Farhoud, carrying his remains after the blast.
ABDUL FARHOUD, AL MEHDI'S BEST FRIEND: If I didn't saw his body in the car, I could not believe it.
SAYAH: He says Al Mehdi's suicide attack sent Gadhafi troops running, clearing the way for rebel fighters to overtake the barracks.
FARHOUD: He's a hero. He's a real hero.
SAYAH: For opposition forces, the taking of the barracks was a monumental victory, made possible, they say, by al Mehdi, one of hundreds of civilians who died in the war for Libya.
For two daughters, the sudden loss of their father is heart- wrenching but one, they say, they're honored to live with. "He did something very important. We're definitely very proud of him."
Reza Sayah, CNN, Benghazi, Libya.
BLITZER: We're standing by to hear from the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. We expect her to be making a statement very soon on this NATO arrangement to take charge of the no-fly zone. We'll hear from the secretary of state. That's coming up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: What we have decided today is to take responsibility for the no-fly zone, with the aim to protect civilians by closing the air space for all flights, except eight flights, all with the aim to protect civilians. Of course, we can act in self defense.
We have not decided yet whether we will take on the broader responsibility. This means that right at this moment, you will have two operations. We have taken on responsibility for the no-fly zone, while the coalition still continues its activities. But as I told you, we are considering whether we should take on that broader responsibility. However, that decision has not been made yet.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Anders Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, speaking with us just a little while ago, breaking the news on precisely what NATO has agreed to do and what it has not agreed to do so far. We're waiting for the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to respond.
She's expected to make a statement soon. As soon as she comes to that microphone at the State Department, we'll go there live. But let's discuss what we -- what this breaking news is all about. Chris Lawrence is joining us from the Pentagon. Gloria Borger is our senior political analyst.
Gloria, first to you. It looks like, just off the top, the Obama administration did not yet get exactly what it wanted from NATO.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, in watching this, Wolf, it's kind of like watching Congress try and get something done. You know, it takes an awful lot of time to get all those people in a room to agree to something.
And I think that I was talking to a senior administration official today who made it very clear to me they want this to evolve to a point where the primary responsibility is not American. What this senior presidential adviser said to me is we want the United States in what he called a support and assist role. And that is, it seems to me, the humanitarian mission. And then NATO would take on the no-fly zone.
But again, how broadly you define what that means seems to be the question that you were getting at with -- with the NATO ambassador.
BLITZER: Chris Lawrence, it seems to me like the Pentagon, obviously, the U.S. military will salute and say, "Yes, sir" to whatever the mission is. But it seems a little convoluted the way they split the baby, if you will.
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, yes. Well any time you've got to try to set up two separate command-and-control structures, it's going to be much more difficult than it -- than if it was all concentrated.
I mean, just handing it off to a combination of NATO and some non-NATO countries was going to be challenging enough.
I mean, you're talking about, Wolf, you know, when you talk about commanding a mission like this, you're talking about, well, the day- to-day operations could be commanded out of a base, say, in Italy, a NATO base. But say the aerial operations are commanded in Turkey.
So it's not only connecting all of these different countries in different locations, but it's making sure that they have the technology to constantly talk to each other and the support that makes sure that nothing slips through the cracks.
BLITZER: All right. Hold on, guys. Stand by. We're going to take a quick break. We're waiting for the secretary of state. We'll have her remarks here on CNN as soon as she comes out. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is still expected to go to the microphones at the State Department and make a statement. We know she's getting ready to be in London on Tuesday for this meeting of all these coalition partners to go forward with this operation over Libya.
Let's continue our discussion with Chris Lawrence. He's over at the Pentagon. Gloria Borger, she's here in the Washington studios.
Gloria, it looks like Secretary of State Clinton is really one of the decisive players in this moment right now, because she's the one that the Obama administration said, "You go out and tell the American people what's going on."
BORGER: Right. I think that, you know, she's the one clearly involved in these negotiations, and that at this point the president of the United States is not coming out, because there isn't anything to announce yet. It's very clear that this is still a work in progress, and I think this gives us a window on the future, though, Wolf.
You know, one of the downsides of not controlling a mission is that you don't control the mission. And so it's not our rules all the time any more, and we have to sort of accept that kind of ambiguity or that back seat, which is something we're not really used to doing in this country. And so the management of this coalition and of our role in it is going to be very delicate.
BLITZER: Chris, hold on a second. Paula Newton is in Brussels at NATO headquarters. She's getting more details on what NATO has agreed to, what it hasn't agreed to. Paula, what else are you learning?
Unfortunately, I think we've lost that connection with Paula Newton, but she is getting more information. We'll fix that connection; we'll go to her.
Any immediate reaction at the Pentagon to what Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general, Chris, announced here in THE SITUATION ROOM at the top of the hour?
LAWRENCE: I think they're still holding off, Wolf, because of one very important thing that I think he said to you, which was when he really made the point to say, "Look, we're still trying to bring this all under NATO."
So I think people are kind of hanging back, waiting to see what happens over the next, say, 24 hours, to see if, indeed, this is just a blip and maybe tomorrow or sometime in the next day that this does get worked out, and everything is brought under the NATO umbrella.
BLITZER: It's a sensitive moment for a lot of people, Gloria, because you know the president is being criticized, obviously, by some Republicans including John Boehner, the speaker of the House. He's also being criticized by some of his fellow Democrats.
BORGER: Right. I think they're going to want answers to the basic questions that you were asking, Wolf. I mean, don't forget, they've got -- they've got to appropriate the money to pay for all of this.
And they're going to want answers to real specific things like about what our role is, what the timetable is, how long this is going to last, what it's going to cost, what's the NATO mission, what is our role in that mission, how do we define success? And if they don't get the answers to those questions, the president's going to have some real political problems.
And we're -- we're watching this unfold, and as you see, it's such a fluid environment, because it's hard to get these 28 members to agree on everything.
BLITZER: Especially hard to get the Turks to agree with France, for example...
BLITZER: ... and the United States, for that matter.
Stand by, guys. We'll take a quick break. More of the breaking news coverage after this.
BLITZER: The upheaval in Libya is leaving some of the country's representatives in a very unusual position. CNN's Brian Todd discovered the former Libyan ambassador to the United States is now trapped in a diplomatic no-man's-land -- Brian.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this flag is a new fixture here in this neighborhood in Northwest Washington. It's the flag of the Libyan opposition. Libyan's former ambassador to the U.S. now represents that opposition, but his life and career are in real limbo.
(voice-over) The place is ornate, immaculate and now cavernous. The Libyan ambassador's residence in Washington looks like it's about to be photographed for a style magazine. But the Filipino women who keep the marble floors sparkling and the flowers watered are gone. The man who employed them, Ali Aujali, quit his job, and their visas expired.
ALI AUJALI, FORMER LIBYAN AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: I don't have the help. I don't have staff or facilities to work. I have to go and buy my stationary yesterday from Staples. TODD: Aujali is the now former Libyan ambassador to the U.S. He broke from Muammar Gadhafi a few weeks back. The embassy in Washington's famed Watergate Hotel was shuttered by the State Department. And now Aujali represents the opposition. Problem is, the U.S. government hasn't yet formally recognized the opposition.
(on camera) Are you afraid that you might lose this place and be tossed out?
AUJALI: I'm afraid of one thing: that the march toward freedom is not achieved.
TODD (voice-over): He now has to take meetings on his cell phone. His staff consists of his wife, two sons, their wives, two American assistants, and his year-and-a-half-old grandson Ali.
Aujali is now one of at least five senior Libyan diplomats who've broken with Gadhafi and who are lingering in a diplomatic and personal no-man's-land.
(on camera) Ambassador Aujali still prominently displays pictures of himself with the Obamas and with George W. Bush. What is missing from this room is a large picture of Muammar Gadhafi that stood right there. That was removed the day he broke with the regime.
(voice-over) Aujali says he was never part of Gadhafi's inner circle. Now he communicates daily with opposition leaders in the eastern city of Benghazi and says he's working to help fund them by trying to free up some of Libya's assets frozen in the U.S.
As for the prospect of Gadhafi staying in power...
(on camera) Are you worried about your own security here, that you might be targeted, the regime hires somebody to...
AUJALI: Now I have no guard. Until now I go as usual as it used to be before. I go to play tennis on the weekend, and I play golf, too. But I'm not concerned with the situation I might be able to (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I don't like, to be honest to you, to be tied to somebody to just look after me all the time, just like looking after a baby, you know, and rocking them in their sleep.
TODD: The former ambassador says he would be comfortable going back to Libya but only to the rebel-held strongholds in the east. Now, as for staying here, he figures the State Department's probably going to confiscate these diplomatic plates on the cars here. He's not sure how long he's going to be able to live here at the residence, but he says if he has leave the neighbors have offered to let him stay there -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian Todd on Diplomatic Row in Washington, D.C.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. "JOHN KING USA" starts right now.