Forces loyal to Col. Muammar Qaddafi have been overrunning one opposition stronghold after another and are close to crushing the rebellion that has threatened his 41-year reign. Now the rebels have the backing of the international community, including the United States, if it is not too late.
The resolution, which was drafted by France, Britain, and Lebanon, goes beyond a no-fly zone. It authorizes states to take “all necessary measures” to enforce a ban on flights and protect civilians from harm. That could include targeted air strikes on Libyan military forces, but excludes a ground invasion or occupation force. The resolution passed by a vote of 10 to 0, with five nations abstaining: Russia, China, Germany, India, and Brazil.
Initially, the United States was reluctant to support even just a no-fly zone over Libya, until the Arab League came out in support of one last Saturday. Once an international consensus began to form, the US did an about-face. In deliberations at the UN, the Obama administration had called for the authority to use force by land, sea, and air, on the condition that Arab governments be centrally involved.
Speaking in Tunisia, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that a no-fly zone would include “certain actions taken to protect the planes and the pilots, including bombing targets like the Libyan defense systems.”
“Qaddafi must go,” she added.
The Security Council voted as Mr. Qaddafi’s forces prepared for a major offensive against the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya. Thursday evening, Qaddafi went on state television and warned rebel forces, “We are coming tonight.”
Even as the Security Council took action, concerns grew that the measure was too late to stop Qaddafi from fully reasserting control over the country.
France, however, insisted it was not too late. Its prime minister said action could come within hours of the vote, according to the Associated Press.
And in Benghazi itself, the mood shifted in an instant to one of triumph as the Libyan opposition lit up the sky with celebratory gunfire within 2 minutes of the resolution passing.
First automatic rifles, then anti-aircraft guns loaded with red tracer bullets for the occasion streaked across the sky. The furious shooting lasted for about 15 minutes before tapering off to a steady, background hum. Carloads of celebrants started pouring into the square outside the courthouse that has been acting as the headquarters of the revolution.
On the approach to the courthouse, hundreds of furiously honking cars drove past a billboard put up shortly after rebel's seized this city in mid-February. "No to foreign intervention," it reads. "The Libyan people can do this on their own."
But the strange scene of an Arab public reacting with glee and relief at imminent foreign military action on their soil is a measure of how much has changed in the past few weeks, as Qaddafi has threatened the rebels’ eastern strongholds and the revolutionary momentum has stalled.
Mosques around the city cranked up their loudspeakers, filling the air in every directions with rythmic, continuous chants of "God is great."
In Washington, in the runup to the Security Council vote, top legislators had been divided over what the US should do. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina called on the Obama administration to be “at least as bold as the French.”
“The French and British are right to call for a no-fly zone over Libya, and they are correct to recognize the forces opposing Qaddafi,” Senator Graham said in a statement Wednesday. “I’m very disappointed by the indecisiveness of the administration in the face of tyranny. They are allowing the cries of the Libyan people to fall on deaf ears.”
Joining Graham in calling for urgent US action were Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But other influential senators have expressed reluctance to see the US get involved in another foreign war. Among the cautious: Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D ) of California, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has also expressed misgivings against involvement without strong international involvement. With the US already at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect of a third hot war in an unforgiving part of the world is not taken lightly by anyone. But advocates of US involvement argued that if the Obama administration stayed on the sidelines, history would be an unforgiving judge.
“The world is watching, and time is beginning to run short,” Graham said in his statement Wednesday. “The Obama administration should join with the international community to form a no-fly zone while it still matters.”
Staff writer Dan Murphy contributed to this report from Benghazi, Libya.