US forces led the biggest military intervention in the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq on Saturday, but President Barack Obama insisted that US involvement would be limited as part of an international effort to protect Libyan civilians.
The United States, France, Britain, Canada and Italy began attacks on targets designed to cripple Muammar Gaddafi's air defenses as the West tries to force the Libyan leader from power. At least some Arab nations are expected to join the coalition.
French planes fired the first shots, destroying tanks and armored vehicles in eastern Libya eight years to the day after US-led forces headed across the Iraqi border in 2003. Hours later, US and British ships and submarines launched more than 110 cruise missiles against air defenses in the oil-producing North African country.
The United States' huge military power dominated the initial phase of the strike and Army General Carter Ham, head of US Africa Command, was leading the entire coalition. Pentagon officials said, however, their plan is take a smaller role over time in the operation, which was named Odyssey Dawn.
"Today I authorized the armed forces of the United States to begin a limited action in Libya in support of an international effort to protect Libyan civilians. That action has now begun," Obama told reporters in Brasilia, his first stop on a five-day tour of Latin America.
He said US troops were acting in support of allies, who will lead the enforcement of a no-fly zone to stop Gaddafi's attacks on rebels.
"As I said yesterday, we will not, I repeat, we will not deploy any US troops on the ground," Obama said, grim-faced as he delivered the news of US military action in a third Muslim country within 10 years.
With the United States involved in long-running campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mark Quarterman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the war-weary American public was nervous about more military action.
"The way the US has handled this - the deliberations both in the Security Council and in Washington leading up to this - has been calibrated to the concern that, yes, the US is in two pretty serious wars now," Quarterman said. "The administration has made it very clear it has serious doubts about taking the lead in another military action in the Middle East."
Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, director of the US military's Joint Staff, said of the US role: "We are on the leading edge of a coalition military operation. This is just the first phase of what will likely be a multiphase operation."
25 coalition ships
The Obama administration had taken a lower profile in diplomacy leading to the UN resolution that set up the strikes, believing that it would allow Arab states to coalesce around a call for action and deny Gaddafi the chance to argue that the United States was again attacking Muslims.
"Even yesterday, the international community offered Muammar Gaddafi the opportunity to pursue an immediate ceasefire, one that stopped the violence against civilians and the advances of Gaddafi's forces," Obama said.
"But despite the hollow words of his government, he has ignored that opportunity," he said.
The Arab League, which had suspended Libya over its handling of the uprising, called for a no-fly zone on March 12, a key to securing US and European backing.
Some 25 coalition ships, including three US submarines and two guided-missile destroyers, are stationed in the Mediterranean. Five US surveillance planes are in the area.
US officials have said repeatedly it is time for Gaddafi to leave but have stressed that the goal of military action in Libya was different.
"It is to protect civilians and it is to provide access for humanitarian assistance," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Paris, where she attended a conference called by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss the international response to the Libya crisis.
A US national security official following events closely said Gaddafi's air defenses had been severely disabled and that it was too early to predict what he might do in response to Saturday's strikes.
"After all, Gaddafi is one of the most unpredictable dictators on the planet and some of his loyalists can only be described as fanatical," the official said.
A second national security official said US government experts are highly skeptical of threats Gaddafi has issued to launch terrorist attacks against Western targets.
China speaks against airstrikes
Meanwhile, NATO-member Turkey's foreign ministry said late on Saturday that it will make the necessary and appropriate national contribution to implementing a UN no-fly zone over Libya and measures to protect civilians.
"Within that framework the necessary preparations and studies are being made by civil and military authorities in co-ordination," the statement added, giving no further detail.
Turkey has been calling for an immediate ceasefire in Libya and said it opposed foreign military intervention.
However after the UN Security Council decision authorizing military action the office of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said in a statement that the resolution was binding on all countries.
Erdogan said on Monday he had urged Muammar Gaddafi to appoint a president with popular support as a way to end Libya's crisis.
China on Sunday expressed "regret" over punishing airstrikes by the US and European nations against Libya to enforce a UN no-fly zone.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said China "consistently disagrees with the use of force in international relations" and expressed "regret" over the Saturday attacks.
In a statement posted on the ministry's website, Jiang said China "hopes the situation in Libya resumes stability as soon as possible" in order to avoid escalation of a military conflict.
China was among five countries that abstained from Thursday's vote on the UN resolution to allow "all necessary measures" to stop Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. It was approved with the backing of the United States, France and Britain.
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to the report
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