NBC has a fairly comprehensive report on the American attack on Libyan forces this morning, complete with totals thus far on cruise missiles (114 of them) and attacks by stealth bombers on air-defense systems, with 20 of those targeted. Military airstrips around the country have been bombed as well, up to 40 of them. Libya claims that 48 people have died as a result of those attacks, and Moammar Gaddafi gave the usual warning to the Muslim world that this was the start of a “crusader war” against an Arab nation. One piece of news might raise eyebrows — the US has sent fighter jets from Sicily to attack Gaddafi’s ground forces around Benghazi:

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That would seem to go beyond the UN mandate for a no-fly zone. The Pentagon tells NBC that their interpretation of the mandate is that they need to protect civilians, an interpretation that would leave practically no option off the table. Even without considering a ground invasion, it could mean that the US could attack Tripoli or practically any target they wish from the air or through off-shore cruise missiles. As Jim Miklaszewski reports, it looks as though the intent now is to utterly destroy Gaddafi’s army in an attempt to force him into retreat.

Not for nothing, but wasn’t that more or less our strategy in Iraq in 1990? We had a lot more firepower on target in that case, and it still took a ground invasion to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait — and that wasn’t his own territory, either. Had we done this four weeks ago, we could have protected a status quo, de facto liberation of Benghazi and other areas of Libya. Now, the Libyan position is so advanced that Gaddafi can likely abandon his armor in the city and reduce the rebels to destruction. It will just take a little longer. The time to stop Gaddafi from seizing Benghazi and stomping out the rebellion was when Gaddafi was bottled up in Tripoli.

Update: One e-mailer claimed that the UN resolution never mentions a no-fly zone, and that it’s basically a blank check for unlimited military intervention.  He’s wrong on the first point — there is a section of UN 1973 that is titled “No Fly Zone,” and the resolution bans all non-UN-approved flights originating in Libya.  On the second point, it’s less clear:

“4.   Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council;

“5.   Recognizes the important role of the League of Arab States in matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security in the region, and bearing in mind Chapter VIII of the Charter of the United Nations, requests the Member States of the League of Arab States to cooperate with other Member States in the implementation of paragraph 4; …

So this does authorize the bombing and strafing of forces besieging Benghazi, but that doesn’t mean it will be effective.  For the most part, though, the resolution ties paragraph 4 to paragraphs 6, 7, and 8:

“6.   Decides to establish a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians;

“7.   Decides further that the ban imposed by paragraph 6 shall not apply to flights whose sole purpose is humanitarian, such as delivering or facilitating the delivery of assistance, including medical supplies, food, humanitarian workers and related assistance, or evacuating foreign nationals from the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, nor shall it apply to flights authorised by paragraphs 4 or 8, nor other flights which are deemed necessary by States acting under the authorization conferred in paragraph 8 to be for the benefit of the Libyan people, and that these flights shall be coordinated with any mechanism established under paragraph 8;

“8.   Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to enforce compliance with the ban on flights imposed by paragraph 6 above, as necessary, and requests the States concerned in cooperation with the League of Arab States to coordinate closely with the Secretary General on the measures they are taking to implement this ban, including by establishing an appropriate mechanism for implementing the provisions of paragraphs 6 and 7 above …

Any nation can interpret that any way they want, which is why it’s written the way it is.  The UN did specifically preclude ground forces being used, and even in paragraph 4, at least strongly suggests that the military effort was supposed to be confined to Benghazi and other areas where civilians were threatened by imminent military action on the part of Gaddafi.

Update II: This didn’t take long, did it?  Via commenter Weight of Glory, the Arab League’s demand for action from the West has now turned into criticism of overstepping the mandate:

A coordinated attack by Western forces targeting Libyan air capabilities and armor appears to have succeeded in damaging Libyan military installations and armor, but Arab support for the no-fly zone may be waning.

Arab League head Amr Moussa told reporters Sunday that the Arab league thought the use of force was excessive following an overnight bombing campaign that Libya claims killed at least 48 people.

“What we want is civilians’ protection, not shelling more civilians,” he was quoted saying by the Associated Press.

What exactly did they expect, after waiting until Gaddafi was already in Benghazi to ask the UN to act?