In testimony to Congress, Gates said combat aircraft was scheduled
to leave the Libyan theatre on April 2, Middle East Newsline reported. Both Gates and U.S. Joint Chiefs of
Staff chairman Adm. Michael Mullen said Washington would also not equip or
train Libyan rebels but would rather provide such support as aerial refueling, search
and rescue and aerial reconnaissance.
"Your timing is exquisite," Sen. John McCain, one of the few
congressional leaders who supported U.S. participation, said. "At a time
when the Gadhafi forces have literally, tragically, routed the
anti-Gadhafi forces, that's when we announced that the United States was
abdicating its leadership role and is removing some of the most valuable
assets that could be used to great effect."
The Pentagon said the U.S. military would maintain an unspecified number
of aircraft on standby for the NATO mission. Most NATO members have already
contributed aircraft for the no-fly zone.
The U.S. pullout came as Obama said he would not rule out equipping the
Libyan rebels. The president, in opposition to U.S. military chiefs, said
the NATO mission must lead to the toppling of Gadhafi.
But in late March, Mullen and other U.S. military chiefs acknowledged
that U.S. aircraft and missile attacks had failed to significantly erode
Gadhafi's forces. They said Gadhafi's military could have lost as much as 25
percent of its combat platforms, but outnumbered the rebels by 10-to-one.
The rebels were believed to have no more than 1,000 trained soldiers,
defectors from the Libyan Army. Officials said the Libyan rebel movement was
divided and some elements have offered a truce with Gadhafi.
Members of Congress said the House and Senate would reconsider the U.S.
participation in the entire NATO mission. They said the absence of U.S.
combat aircraft would not be compensated by other NATO members, including
Britain and France.
"The idea that the AC-130s and the A-10s and American air power is
grounded unless the place goes to hell is just so unnerving that I can't
express it adequately," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South
Carolina, said. "The only thing I would ask is, please reconsider that."