WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and allied forces have effectively established a no-fly zone over Libya and halted an offensive by Moammar Gadhafi against rebels in Benghazi, the top U.S. military officer said Sunday.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NBC's "Meet the Press" program that the U.S.-led air strikes that began Saturday "took out" Gadhafi's air defenses, struck air fields and attacked Libyan ground forces near the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
"He (Gadhafi) hasn't had aircraft or helicopters flying the last couple days. So effectively that no-fly zone has been put in place," Mullen said.
"We have halted him in the vicinity of Benghazi, which is where he was most recently on the march," he said, adding that Western forces had established combat air patrols over the city that would be extended westward toward Tripoli over time.
"The objective will be to attack those forces and ensure that they are unable to continue to attack the innocent civilians," Mullen said.
The Pentagon said in a statement that U.S. Navy Growlers provided electronic support while AV-8B Harriers from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit conducted air strikes against Gaddafi's ground forces and air defenses.
The U.S. military also used B-2 stealth bombers, according to U.S. media reports.
Mullen emphasized that Western military operations were narrowly focused on protecting civilians and aiding humanitarian efforts under a U.N. Security Council resolution, not on ending Gadhafi's 41-year rule.
"What we expect is (for) him to stay down, not fly his aircraft, not attack his own people and to allow the humanitarian efforts ... to take place," Mullen said.
As a result, the mission could be completed in days or weeks with Gadhafi still in power.
"That's certainly, potentially, one outcome," he said. "Over time, clearly Colonel Gadhafi's going to have to make some decisions," Mullen added. "He's going to have to make some choices about his own future."
In the next few days, Mullen said, the United States expects to relinquish its leadership of the Libyan operation, dubbed "Odyssey Dawn," which also currently includes Britain, France, Canada and Italy.
But he did not say who would assume the lead.
The U.S. role would then shift to support operations including intelligence, signal jamming, aerial refueling and humanitarian efforts.
Mullen said Gadhafi has sought to protect targets with human shields. But he added that he had seen no reports of civilian casualties from the air strikes, which Mullen said were calculated to minimize "collateral damage."
There has also been no sign that the Libyan leader intends to mobilize his chemical weapons in response to the military operation, Mullen said.
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