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How NATO could find itself protecting Qaddafi loyalists in Libya

NATO's mandate in Libya is to protect civilians, and with rebels now promising to attack cities loyal to Qaddafi, the alliance could be called on to protect civilians there. It is one complication that has NATO pressing for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

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At a press conference Tuesday at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Col. Roland Lavoie refused to speculate on how NATO would respond if the rebels do attack Sirte, but added, “I can assure you that our mission is to protect the civilian population, and we will do that with great care.”

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A desirable endgame

The shift in the rebels’ fortunes puts NATO in a new and tricky position. But there are also advantages to the rebel forces ending any remaining ambiguities about who is running Libya, says Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.

“If the rebels persist in hitting armed Qaddafi supporters while keeping civilian casualties to a minimum, then this can become the final phase of the revolution and a force for closure,” he says. “Where it becomes problematic is if it creates a humanitarian crisis – for example, if they started indiscriminately bombing Sirte.”

The Naval War College’s Gvosdev agrees. “If there’s a sense that the fall of Tripoli was not the final chapter and that the fight goes on, then it will be hard to proceed to any political transition,” he says. “There needs to be a sense of finality.”

NATO officials have suggested the alliance is ready to end its mission as soon as Libyan civilians are no longer under threat. They insist that any international nation-building duties will fall to the UN and not to NATO. Gvosdev notes that European leaders were particularly keen to suggest to their voters that the fall of Tripoli meant NATO’s role was over.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron "didn’t exactly proclaim ‘mission accomplished,’ but they came pretty close,” he says.

But Gvosdev adds that it very likely won’t be as easy for NATO to leave Libya as it would like.

“There will be questions about an international security role, maybe a need for peacekeeping forces, and if there’s a power vacuum the US will be concerned about that giving Al Qaeda in the Maghreb a chance to consolidate,” he says. “I don’t see the Arab League or the African Union taking on this international role, so it may end up falling by default to the countries that carried out the mandate that made this turn of events possible.”

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