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U.S. Begins Airstrikes Against Islamic State Fighters In Libya

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

American warplanes are in action again over Libya. For the third time in eight months, the U.S. has attacked Islamic State forces there, but it is different this time. The U.S. is now supporting Libyan ground forces who are trying to recapture a key city from ISIS forces. NPR's Tom Bowman is with us now to talk about this. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So the U.S. is supporting Libyan government troops for the first time. Explain that.

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. killed an ISIS leader with an airstrike last fall, and then earlier this year, American warplanes hit a training camp. But Kelly, this is different.

MCEVERS: Right.

BOWMAN: U.S. aircraft are supporting Libyan troops as a push toward the ISIS stronghold of Sirte on the coast. These recent American airstrikes hit an ISIS tank, some vehicles, and the Pentagon says there'll likely be more airstrikes.

Now, Pentagon Spokesman Peter Cook said these American attacks were pushed by Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER COOK: The president, acting on the recommendation of Secretary Carter and Chairman Dunford, felt that we could make a difference on the battlefield, specifically with our capabilities as they move very aggressively to eject ISIL from their territory. I think it's fair to say that our strikes will be supportive of their efforts to try and retake territory in Sirte.

MCEVERS: OK, so the Pentagon there saying it hopes to make a difference, and we heard the reference to the possibility of more airstrikes. Tom, how much longer will this operation go on?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know, and no one is saying at this point. There are roughly, the Pentagon says, a thousand or more ISIS fighters in Sirte. And the Pentagon says they want to be careful not to hit civilians. They're working with the Libyan government to find targets. But it's hard. This is an urban environment.

MCEVERS: What about U.S. ground troops? Is that a possibility.

BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon said no U.S. ground forces took part in this operation.

MCEVERS: OK.

BOWMAN: But the Pentagon has said in the past that small teams of American special operators are on the ground assisting Libyan troops. There are also commandos from other nations as well, including France.

Now, the Libyan prime minister, Fayez Sarraj, said in a televised statement that he requested the U.S. airstrikes. He said there'll be no outside military combat presence on the ground. He also said the U.S. will help only around the city of Sirte. Again, that's the ISIS stronghold.

MCEVERS: Let's put this into context and talk about - just catch us up on the broader situation in Libya and how - and tell us how this military action fits in.

BOWMAN: Well, as we all know, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi ran the country until he was ousted in 2011. Then there was a power vacuum. The U.S. and NATO kind of dropped the ball. The hard work of helping create a government after Gaddafi, train troops - Libyan troops - it all just kind of fell apart.

MCEVERS: Right, and then various militias stepped in to take power in different places, right?

BOWMAN: That's right, along with ISIS. And it wasn't until last year that the U.N. recognized a Libyan government. But that government doesn't even control the capital of Tripoli. There are two rival governments - another in Tripoli and still another in the eastern city of Tobruk.

MCEVERS: And of course the U.S. is already fighting ISIS with thousands of American advisers in Iraq also launching airstrikes in Syria. What's the particular concern about ISIS in Libya?

BOWMAN: Well, Kelly, Libya's in a strategic location. It's of course right next to Egypt and across the Mediterranean from Italy, so that's a particular concern. ISIS has threatened Italy, and the U.S. wants to end the threat of ISIS here as well.

Now, ISIS has gained a foothold because of this power vacuum, and they're attracting fighters from nearby Tunisia, Sudan and elsewhere. So once ISIS is defeated - whenever that is, if they can actually defeat ISIS here - then you're actually facing, Kelly, something even more complicated - finding a solution to this political problem - an inclusive Libyan government.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.