NATO has named a Canadian general to lead its Libyan operation, finalizing what it hopes will be a unified command to oversee military action against the North African nation.
Canadian Gen. Charles Bouchard will be in charge of both the air campaign and the naval task force implementing an arms embargo, a NATO official said.
By Monday, NATO expects to start enforcing the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone over Libya, as well as coordinating naval patrols in the Mediterranean to enforce the U.N. arms embargo against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces. With further approval expected Sunday, NATO will take over the responsibility for bombing Gadhafi's military to protect civilians from attack.
Such an international operation is rare but not unprecedented, and NATO officials insist the hand-over from U.S.-led forces currently conducting the aerial onslaught will be seamless.
"There will be no window of opportunity for people to exploit the changeover," said Group Capt. Geoffrey Booth, of NATO's military staff.
Directed from one of NATO's most sophisticated command centers, near Naples, Italy, an array of fighter jets will scream southward toward Libya, mostly from bases in Italy, to drop their payloads or patrol the skies. The NATO center will also coordinate the radar surveillance planes, aerial refueling tankers, maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters needed to maintain the operation 24 hours a day, Booth said.
The operation will be run from Joint Forces Command headquarters, one of NATO's two operational headquarters. The other, Brunssum in the Netherlands, is responsible for the war in Afghanistan.
During the Cold War, the sprawling Italian seaside facility served as NATO's headquarters for all of southern Europe. It boasts highly advanced communications equipment that enables commanders to maintain-real time contact with NATO forces anywhere in the region.
Envoys from NATO's 28 member countries agreed late Thursday to enforce only the Libya no-fly zone. That would have resulted in dual commands _ NATO for the no-fly zone and the U.S for the airstrikes.
But on Friday, an official said NATO now hopes to launch both operations simultaneously within a couple of days. The official requested anonymity because of regulations about speaking to the media.
President Barack Obama and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both said that American command of the military operations in Libya would last only a few days.
The North Atlantic Council, NATO's top decision-making body, must still approve the airstrike plans, possibly in a meeting Sunday. The actions are meant to protect civilians in Libya, where a rebellion against Gadhafi's 42-year rule broke out last month.
Bouchard will serve under U.S. Adm. Samuel Locklear, who commands NATO's operations headquarters for the Mediterranean in Naples. Both are subordinate to the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, Adm. James Stavridis in Belgium, one of a new crop of officers and diplomats brought in by Obama to run the war in Afghanistan.
But if the North Atlantic Council fails to agree to bombing, the NATO force may have to operate alongside the fighter-bombers of the U.S. and its allies.
It's very unusual _ but not unheard-of _ for units from the same country to conduct operations under separate commands. The NATO-led operation in Afghanistan has run in parallel with a separate and smaller U.S. military mission for much of the past decade.
"Still, it would be a very confusing situation to have essentially the same countries operating over Libya under two military commands," said Marko Papic of the Stratfor intelligence analysis group.
Meanwhile, a Qatari Air Force Mirage 2000 fighter-bomber on Friday became the first jet from a Middle Eastern nation to join the international force when it flew on patrol with a French Mirage. Qatar has deployed six Mirages and two C-17s transports in the Libyan operation.
Other nations involved are Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Norway, Spain, Britain, and the United States. The United Arab Emirates has said it will join.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the operation, approved for up to three months, could be extended if necessary.
Bouchard, a lieutenant-general whose rank is equivalent to a three-star U.S. general, is stationed in Naples. His recent job was deputy commander of NORAD, reporting to an American general.