NAVAL AIR STATION SIGONELLA, Italy — Top military commanders in the Libyan mission told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Friday that they are nearing a turning point in the NATO operation that could signal its end, a senior defense official said.
Commanders meeting with Panetta in Naples, Italy, told him that ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi no longer has command and control of regime forces and that opposition troops could be within days of wresting control of the key city of Sirte, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meetings were private.
Their assessment came as Gadhafi called on Libyans to rise up and protest the country's new leaders, saying the newly forming National Transitional Council has no legitimacy.
After two days of meetings in Brussels with NATO defense ministers, Panetta flew to Naples to meet with Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, the commander of NATO's Libya operation, as well as with NATO's top military commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis and others to discuss the progress toward ending the combat operation.
After sweeping into Tripoli in late August, the former rebel forces, aided by NATO airstrikes, have gained control over most of the North African nation and forced the leader and two of his sons into hiding.
The operation is in its seventh month, and there has been increasing debate over the length and projected conclusion of the mission from U.S. Congress members and NATO leaders who have long been divided on the operation.
In the private meeting on a U.S. base in Naples, where the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet is headquartered, commanders laid out their views of the progress the fledgling Libyan government and its revolutionary forces are making on several key benchmarks they need to meet in order for the mission to wrap up. And while commanders gave no specific timeline for the end of the combat, the defense official said they noted significant developments that have been made.
Commanders said a key element to ending the war will be when opposition forces take over Sirte, a former Gadhafi stronghold that rebels have been pounding in recent days. And they said that key turning point is coming very soon, and may likely trigger a new phase of the operation.
The official said commanders also warned that the National Transitional Council, which has assumed leadership of the country, has made progress but needs to be better organized and take additional steps to insure that it can provide security for the country over the long term.
The NTC, the official said, may well need assistance in the future – such as training – to provide security for its citizens and develop the needed governance.
"Good parts of Sirte have been liberated, but there is still some work to do," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.
Nuland said once the resistance in Sirte is defeated, the de facto government will declare the whole country liberated.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, an administration official said that 80 percent of the city was now pacified or under the NTC's control. The official said the remaining area might take a little more time as forces move methodically to eliminate the resistance.
Following NATO meetings in Brussels Thursday, Panetta laid out four general areas that commanders will review as they assess the mission – such as the ongoing violence in Sirte and how much control Gadhafi appears to have over his loyalists, but did not specify what those situations must look like in order to end the NATO assault.
He said NATO leaders agreed that ending the combat mission in Libya will depend on whether forces loyal to Gadhafi are still able to attack civilians and whether the opposition forces are able to provide security for the country as it moves to democracy.
"I have to tell you that at the time that this mission (was) embarked on, there were a lot of critics about whether it was the right mission, at the right time with the right force, whether NATO could do the job," Panetta told a group of international troops at Naval Air Station Sigonella on Sicily. Allies have launched thousands of air missions for the Libya operation from the naval base.
As Panetta spoke, fighter jets took off, and an armed Air Force Predator drone slipped gracefully into the air, circled and veered away. Behind him was one of three sophisticated Global Hawk surveillance drones based at Sigonella, that have provided high-altitude eyes over Libya.
"There were an awful lot of question about the mission overall. The critics have really been proven wrong."
Among those critics were members of the U.S. Congress, a spate of global leaders and his predecessor, Robert Gates, who left the Pentagon job at the end of June.
Over the past several days, Panetta and other NATO leaders reviewed the Libya mission, and many declared it a success as it supported the revolutionary forces in their successful campaign to oust Gadhafi.
Earlier in the day, Panetta spoke to about 250 U.S. troops at the Naples Navy base, and answered their questions on an array of topics.
During the session, he made it clear the U.S. rejects efforts by the Iraqis to make troops subject to local prosecution if they remain in Iraq after the end of the year.
"If they want the benefits that we can provide, if they want the assistance, want the training, want the operational skills that we can provide, they have to understand that they've got to give us some protection," he told troops at the base, which serves as the headquarters for the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet. "if something happens, we will prosecute our own, we've always done that."
Immunity from prosecution has emerged at the most contentious issue as Baghdad and Washington seek to hammer out an agreement on whether to keep a small American training force in Iraq after this year's troop drawdown.
Officials say less than 5,000 advisers would likely remain. Iraqis don't want any foreigners to be exempt from local laws. But for the U.S., the lack of immunity is a deal-breaker.
_ Bradley Klapper contributed to this report from Washington.