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Could Libya airstrikes point to deeper US involvement in the war against ISIS?

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Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

(Read caption) A fighter of Libyan forces allied with the UN-backed government looks through a hole in a wall as a self-propelled artillery gun fires at Islamic State fighters during a battle in Sirte, Libya, Sunday.

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The United States carried out two airstrikes on Monday in the Libyan city of Sirte, in the first of what may be an extended military campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Libya.

“Today, at the request of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA),” said the Pentagon in a statement, “the United States military conducted precision air strikes against ISIL targets in Sirte, Libya, to support GNA-affiliated forces seeking to defeat ISIL in its primary stronghold in Libya.”

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The airstrikes come after months of intensive reconnaissance by US Special Forces in a country still mired in the turmoil that followed the Western-backed deposing of former strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. And the attacks seem to augur extended involvement by the US, with Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook telling reporters that defense officials had no clear timeline for US military commitment.

“We don't have an end point at this particular moment in time,” said Mr. Cook. “But we'll be working closely with the GNA and we certainly hope that this is something that does not require a lengthy amount of time.”

Militias from the UN-backed GNA, which exercises control in the western part of Libya – though without the approval of the elected parliament based in the east – have been trying to retake Sirte from IS militants. They requested airstrikes, reports Al Jazeera, to clear terrain on the city’s outskirts where booby traps, mines, and roadside bombs had slowed their advance. Mr. Cook said Monday's airstrikes targeted a tank and two vehicles. 

The bombings were the first by the US in Libya since February, when it targeted Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian militant suspected of planning attacks on Western tourists and thought to be living in an IS training camp. Nearly 50 people died in that bombing, including two Serbian diplomats who had been abducted by Islamic State forces.

Unlike those earlier airstrikes, when it sought to kill people it believed to be IS leaders, the US has now lent military support to a coordinated effort with local forces.

“What’s happening now for the first time is that the United States is supporting forces on the ground that are battling the Islamic State,” said Washington Post reporter Missy Ryan in an NPR interview on Tuesday. “If it’s sustained, as Pentagon officials say they expect it to be to some extent, it’ll be really opening a new chapter in the campaign against the Islamic State, similar to what the United States is doing in Iraq and Syria, albeit on a much smaller scale.”

American military officials concluded back in March that a barrage of airstrikes against as many as 40 targets would have crippled ISIS operations in Libya, reported the New York Times. The Obama administration decided not to authorize the operations because of the fragile politics around the establishment of an interim government.

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Cook told reporters on Monday that the legal justification for the strikes stemmed from a 2001 authorization for military force passed in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks and cited by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama as the legal framework for military actions in countries like Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and others.

IS has claimed Sirte since February 2015, though it did not consolidate control over the eastern coastal city until summer of that year. The Pentagon says about 1,000 IS fighters remain there, from a peak of around 6,000.