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A tank belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi explodes after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters/Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
A tank belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi explodes after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters/Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Cracks appear in coalition as Libya burns Add to ...

Cracks emerged in the supposedly joint Arab-Western coalition of war planes attacking forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi only hours after a massive pounding by more than 100 U.S. cruise missiles pulverized Libya's air defences, reportedly killing scores and wounding many others.

Dismayed by the intensive barrage, the 22-nation Arab League faltered in its backing of American, French and British air strikes, a grave split that could undermine the UN-mandate for limited war to protect rebel-held strongholds, including Benghazi.

Defiant, Colonel Gadhafi dubbed the attacks a "crusade," fostering the notion of Western powers waging war for oil on another Muslim state.

French, British and U.S. warplanes scoured Libyan skies again Sunday but found little to attack. The tanks and artillery poised to strike Benghazi were smouldering wrecks filled with charred corpses from Saturday's initial strikes. Forces loyal to the unpredictable Col. Gadhafi had - at least in the east - abandoned military vehicles and were fleeing toward the leader's strongholds of Surt and Tripoli.

Canada's six CF-18 fighter-bombers remained on the ground at an Italian air base in Sicily, not yet ready to join the mostly Western warplanes enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.

Arab air forces, purportedly pledged to join the fray, had not arrived. Only one, tiny Qatar, said it remained committed to sending war planes.

While President Barack Obama has tried to portray his country's role as supportive - with France and Britain in the lead - the reality was different. All but a handful of the 112 cruise missiles (unmanned jet-engine-powered flying bombs each tipped with a half-tonne of high-explosive warheads and capable of pinpoint accuracy) were fired from half-a-dozen U.S. warships and a British submarine offshore. Four massive B-52 bombers, each carrying 30-tonnes of bombs also hit 20 Libyan targets - runways, radars, missile sites.

By comparison, the handful of laser-guided bombs dropped by French war planes that destroyed tanks and armoured personnel carriers outside Benghazi attacked much media attention but paled compared with the scale and military significance of the U.S. strikes. Jubilant rebels examined the burned-out tanks and charred bodies on the outskirts of Benghazi.

The Arab League, whose support was called vital by Mr. Obama and tipped the balance in getting United Nations Security Council backing for limited war against Col. Gadhafi, lashed out at the scale of the air strikes and unconfirmed reports of hundreds killed by the cruise missile barrage.

"What we want is the protection of civilians and not the shelling of more civilians," said Amr Moussa, the Arab League's Secretary-General. War planes promised by several Arab states have yet to fly missions over Libya and any cracking of the coalition could buttress Col. Gadhafi's claim that Western powers were attacking another Muslim country under the pretext of protecting a pro-democracy uprising.

Howls of outrage also came from Syria, where the security forces also opened fired on protesters this weekend. Washington's close Arab allies - notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia voiced no support. Meanwhile, countries usually hostile to Washington denounced the mission as war aimed at securing Libya's oil fields.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, tried to portray U.S. military might as secondary. "We will support an international coalition," she said as the first Libyan tanks were targeted. "French planes are already in the skies above Benghazi, [and the U.S. will]help our European and Canadian allies and Arab partners stop further violence against civilians, including through the effective implementation of a no-fly zone."

Col. Gadhafi denounced Mr. Obama and other leaders of the mostly-Western coalition sending war planes - including Canada - as the new Nazis and warned they will "fall like Hitler [and]Mussolini."

In an enraged speech, broadcast in Tripoli, he said he would hand out guns to all Libyans and predicted a valiant defence against "flagrant and unjust aggression."

We promise you a long war," he said, adding that the Western air strikes were "simply a colonial crusader aggression." Later, a missile flattened an administrative building of Col. Gadhafi's residence in Tripoli, destroying the Libyan leader's "command and control capability," a coalition official told Agence France-Presse on Sunday.

The most senior U.S. military man came close to announcing "mission accomplished."

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