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Civilian deaths in Libya were inevitable

The real question is 'have more lives been saved than lost?'

By Staff writer / June 20, 2011

So, it's happened. NATO confirmed that it accidentally hit a civilian home in Tripoli yesterday, and reporters taken to the scene by their Libyan government handlers say at least five civilians were killed, two of them children.

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The tragedy was pounced upon by Muammar Qaddafi's government with relish. Foreign Minister Abdulati al-Obeidi demanded a "a global jihad" to destroy the "oppressive criminal West" in response to the attack, which the Libyan government claims killed nine civilians. Qaddafi admirer Julius Malema in South Africa urged the International Criminal Court to indict Barack Obama and Nikolas Sarkozy for war crimes.

That Qaddafi would latch on to this tragedy as an argument for his regime to be preserved is wholly expected. But he helped breed the situation he now finds himself in. In February and March, before the UN and Arab League authorized action against him, he'd described his opponents in the rebel capital of Benghazi as "cockroaches" and vowed to hunt them down "house to house, room to room, alley to alley."

Hundreds of civilians died under the indirect fire he poured on rebellious towns, not to mention the flying teams of gunmen who shot down protesters in Tripoli in February. When the UN approved action, he was in the process of overrunning Benghazi, the country's second-largest city. US, French, and other officials were convinced massive reprisals would have been carried out against the citizenry once Qaddafi had regained the town (a completely unprovable assertion at this point).

Though Qaddafi's regime has alleged civilian casualties from NATO air strikes in the past, this is the first time the allegation has held up to any scrutiny. And since the formal justification for the NATO strikes is a humanitarian one -- that civilian lives are being saved by the protection afforded from Qaddafi's troops -- any civilian deaths are far more than "collateral damage."

But there's been a lot of coverage today in the vein of this breathless piece from the BCC: "Two days and two incidents involving civilian casualties. Could this be the moment when support for Nato's Libyan air campaign begins to unravel? (let me save you the trouble of clicking through. The answer is "no.") These stories will be largely forgotten tomorrow or the day after.


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