Boston — Western planes hit Muammar Qaddafi's Bab al-Azizya compound in Tripoli this morning for the second time since international action began over Libya five weeks ago. Qaddafi's spokesman screamed that the man who calls himself the "king of kings" was the target of the air-strikes.
To be sure, NATO insists that the target was a communications center being used for directing attacks on civilians. That would put the target squarely on UN Security Council Resolution 1973's "OK" list, since it calls for the protection of Libyan civilians. Was it some kind of command post for civilian attacks? Perhaps.
But while it's true that Qaddafi loyalists are killing civilians in places like Misurata (Reuters reports that 48 civilians were killed in shelling of the city over the weekend), carrying out Qaddafi's month-long siege of the city hardly needs moment-to-moment orders from Tripoli. Instead, it appears that the Western allies are once again expanding the definition of "civilian protection."
Which means that, for a change, Qaddafi's spokesmen are at least in the ballpark of the truth. The limits of the UN resolution are one thing, but the intentions of France, the UK, and the US in Libya are something else again. They've made it clear by their actions that regime change is their ultimate goal and in recent days they've grown more aggressive in bringing it about.
It's doubtful that Qaddafi was in fact a target of today's strike on Bab al-Azizya, a place of mythical opulence in the eyes of Libya's rebels. He's been mostly underground for weeks, only making short and unscheduled public forays, and has a network of bunkers and other hiding places across Libya. On April 15, 1986, the Reagan Administration attacked the compound from the air, missing Qaddafi but killing an adopted daughter of the Libyan strongman.
That failed US effort on Qaddafi's life 25 years ago was a powerful learning experience, making it unlikely NATO will get a clear shot at him now. But attacks on the compound are cheered on in Libya's east, and perhaps will encourage major population centers beyond Misurata in the west, where uprisings were brutally quashed, to take up arms again.
The NATO hope at the moment is that at some point enough of the officers protecting Qaddafi, and enough of the men under their command, will decide dying for the dictator isn't worth it. Though there are some extremely loyal units, like the 32nd Brigade commanded by his son Khammis Qaddafi, the presumption is that support for the regime is brittle, that the fuel for Qaddafi's rule is the cash and favors he can keep flowing to loyalists, not the force of his own personality.
In Misurata, rebel fighters and foreign reporters say Qaddafi's infantry has been pushed out of positions they held within the city. There's clearly been a retreat of forces from town in the past few days. Qaddafi's government says that has been done to give peace negotiations a chance, but that's hard to believe, since the withdrawal has been matched by an increase in rocket and mortar fire on the town.