Splits widen among Western leaders over way forward in Libya

As the US moves to transfer command of Libya operations to Western allies, Europe is grappling with who should take the lead to enforce UN Resolution 1973.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
Libyan rebels try to take cover as mortars from Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi's forces are fired on them on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Tuesday, March 22. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Qaddafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat just last week.

Some 56 hours after launching military strikes in Libya to protect civilians and set up a no-fly zone, European and US leaders are now describing operations as successful and efficient – and explaining the lack of planning and clarity in the mission as a necessary evil of moving swiftly to save lives.

The official verdict in London, Washington, and Paris is that the coalition that acted on United Nations Resolution 1973 stopped a bloodbath, supported the right cause, and needed to move “now not later,” as British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament, which strongly supported the action.

Air strikes on Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s forces “stopped the attack [on Benghazi] in its tracks,” a British military spokesman said today.

The intervention was “not ideal,” French Prime Minister François Fillon said today in the French National Assembly, which also showed rare unified support for an initiative by President Nicolas Sarkozy. “But hesitation would have been worse.”

“Sarkozy got out in front,” says Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “Sarkozy is not a retiring type … he was important in crystallizing a coalition ... and he helped force the issue with Obama.”

Yet as “transfer” of command moves from the US to a European coalition that led the Libyan strike, some large issues are pressing: Who will lead the coalition, is Mr. Qaddafi a legitimate target, and how to identify friend from foe in the field.

The issue was on awkward display Monday at a fractious NATO meeting, as French and German representatives walked out after being criticized for too much zeal, and too little zeal, respectively, by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

On Tuesday, coalition planes expanded the no-fly zone further in Libya under US command but targets have started to diminish as Qaddafi’s forces stay away from the open desert. There was fighting today in Misurata, Libya’s third largest city, as well as in Ajdabiya and Zintan.

Yet American officials from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to President Obama stress that transferring command of the Western role is imminent. Mr. Obama has sent a letter to Congress describing the US role as limited, and, on Monday, he said the shift to the next responsible party was expected to be “a matter of days and not a matter of weeks.”

Whether NATO, a freestanding coalition, or some combination of the two will take over is now the big question in Washington, London, and Paris.

Mr. Cameron has all along said NATO will handle the operation known as "Odyssey Dawn." But the French position articulated by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is that the crucial Arab acceptance of a largely Western-led intervention precludes the NATO brand. Turkey initially said it would not agree to NATO command but in the past 24 hours said it would, pending conditions that scale back the scope of the action.

Meanwhile, Italy insists its participation and use of its bases requires NATO command; Norway has grounded its six fighter jets until there is “clarity” on command and control. Germany, which abstained at the Security Council vote last week, now appears it will not block a NATO command.

Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the Paris-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, suggested that leadership could be structured in such a way as to give NATO military command and hand political direction to a coalition that includes Britain, Italy, France, and the Arab League, or an Arab grouping.

British analysts cast doubt on the possibility of British participation under a single French flag, citing problems of communications.

“For Sarkozy, this is his Margaret Thatcher-Falklands moment,” said Alexis Crow a security specialist at Chatham House in London. “But I don’t think the Cameron, [British Foreign Secretary William] Hague, Sarkozy team has thought this all the way through. I worry about the problem of identifying who the rebels are.”

As Odyssey Dawn has moved forward, European and US leaders have backed off what had been an openly stated goal of removing Qaddafi from power. Obama clarified in Chile Monday that seeing the end of Qaddafi is “US policy” but that it is not the intent of the Chapter Seven UN resolution that passed last Thursday. British officials have been less circumspect about intent to remove Qaddafi.

"Mission accomplished would mean the Libyan people free to control their own destiny. This is very clear – the international community wants his regime to end and wants the Libyan people to control for themselves their own country," Liam Fox, Britain's defense secretary, recently told the BBC's Politics Show.

While Mr. Fox said, "regime change is not an objective" of the Western operation in Libya, "it may come about as a result of what is happening amongst the people of Libya."

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