Obama administration drafting 'humanitarian' military options for Libya

Thursday, March 3, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

WASHINGTON The administration of President Barack Obama has been drafting a U.S. military option against Libya.

Officials said the Defense Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff and State Department were meeting to draft contingencies that would help the Libyan opposition against the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi. They said the administration preferred to avoid direct intervention against Gadhafi, but rather help the opposition under the guise of humanitarian missions in Libya.

"Our focus is on ending the abuses by the Gadhafi regime and supporting, in a humanitarian effort, those who are suffering because of the violence," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

[On March 2, a series of explosions and fires were reported in Tripoli. Witnesses said the explosions stemmed from a fuel truck that blew up in the capital's downtown district, deemed under government control.]

One option was the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya. Officials said the European Union and United States would send military aircraft that would be prepared to intercept any Libyan military or other regime aircraft regardless of its mission.

"A no-fly zone is an option we are actively considering," Ms. Clinton said on Feb. 28 after meeting EU leaders. "I discussed it today with allies and partners, and we will proceed with this active consideration."

Officials said a no-fly zone would immediately harm the Gadhafi regime and its estimated force of 30,000 soldiers. They said Libya would be unable to transport troops or receive arms shipments from its allies in the former Soviet Union. Gadhafi was said to have ordered weapons from several former Soviet republics, particularly Belarus.

The U.S. military has already warned that enforcement of a no-fly zone would be difficult in Libya, a country much larger than Iraq. On March 1, Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis said the United States and its allies would first be required to neutralize Gadhafi's air defense capabilities, based on Soviet-origin platforms.

"My military opinion is that it [no-fly zone] would be challenging," Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "You would have to remove air defense capability in order to establish a no-fly zone, so no illusions here. It would be a military operations. It wouldn't be just telling people not to fly airplanes."

Mattis's assessment was said to reflect that of the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs of Staff. Officials said NATO has not formed a consensus for any military option against Libya, including the establishment of a no-fly zone.

"This would be an extraordinarily complex operation to set up," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. "We would have to work our way through doing it in a safe manner and certainly not put ourselves in jeopardy in doing that."

Another option, officials said, was for the EU and United States to open a so-called humanitarian corridor along Libya's eastern and western border. They pointed out that Gadhafi remained in control over most of the western border with Tunisia in what has jeopardized the rebellion. On March 1, Gadhafi forces, backed by air strikes, captured the eastern city of Brega.

"We are preparing for contingencies by moving some assets into the region, primarily focused on the potential humanitarian contingencies that are out there," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on March 1.

The administration has already ordered the U.S. Navy to deploy several warships off the coast of Libya. Officials said NATO, several of whose members have sent special forces to Libya, could use assets in neighboring Italy and Malta to counter Gadhafi.

"We have planners working various contingency plans," Pentagon spokesman David Lapan said. "It's safe to say as a part of that, we're re-positioning forces to provide for that flexibility. So those forces could be used in any number of ways."

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