U.S. sees key NATO role on Libya, but questions remain

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2011 7:29 PM
U.S. sees key NATO role on Libya, but questions remain

By Andrew Quinn and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Western nations waging an air campaign in Libya agreed on Tuesday to use NATO to drive the military effort but lack the backing of all alliance members and are divided on the mission's leadership.

President Barack Obama, hoping to hand over U.S. command of Libya operations to allies within days, agreed with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that NATO would play a key role, the White House said.

But the allies stopped short of endorsing NATO political leadership of the mission, which would be difficult for alliance member Turkey to accept and undercut shaky Arab support for the effort to protect Libyans from Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

France has called for a "political steering body" including Arab countries to take charge of the no-fly zone operation.

Obama, under domestic pressure to limit U.S. involvement, said he had "absolutely no doubt" a deal would be reached soon and that the operation's costs could be managed despite a push for budget cuts by his Republican political opponents.

"The American people are going to feel satisfied that lives were saved and people were helped," Obama said at a news conference in El Salvador, the final stop of a Latin America tour.

In Brussels, NATO agreed on Tuesday to enforce an arms embargo on Libya and completed plans to enforce a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone if needed. But French and Turkish objections again prevented any deal to put the operation under NATO command.

Obama's diplomatic push, in phone calls to Cameron, Sarkozy and other leaders, underscored his eagerness to put a non-U.S. face on the campaign against Gaddafi's forces, even if U.S. military might remains the backbone of the operation.

A senior U.S. official said the allies were working to bring in both NATO and non-NATO partners and voiced hope that more Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, would soon announce contributions to the effort.

"We're confident that we'll be able to work out an effective mechanism that takes advantage of the practical capacities that NATO can bring to bear but which also makes clear that NATO is only a part of this effort," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

QUAGMIRE FEARS

The question of who takes over leadership of the Libya mission is crucial for Obama, who has stressed limited U.S. involvement for both voters and lawmakers worried about U.S. forces becoming bogged down in another Muslim country while still occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said foreign ministers of countries taking part in military action in Libya are set to meet in the coming days to create a clear political structure for operations.

"I've proposed with the agreement of our British colleagues that we set up a political structure to guide operations, involving foreign ministers from countries that are taking part and from the Arab League," Juppe told the French parliament.

"Once we have this political structure ... we will naturally use the planning and intervention capacities of NATO," he said.

A NATO official said the fact that the 28-nation alliance had agreed on a detailed operations plan for a no-fly zone was significant. "However, that doesn't take into account the political reality of having to reach agreement on whether to execute it," the official said.

That agreement has thus far proved hard to find. While Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy agreed NATO's command structure could be used to support the coalition, French and Turkish objections continued to throw a question mark over the future structure of the alliance.

France, which launched the first strikes on Libya, has argued against a prominent role for NATO, citing the U.S.-dominated alliance's poor reputation in the Arab world. Turkey has said the air strikes have already gone beyond what had been sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council.

Other NATO states, most vocally Italy, say NATO should either have command or no role at all.

Gaddafi's forces attacked two west Libyan towns on Tuesday, killing dozens of people while rebels pinned down in the east struggled themselves to create a command structure that can capitalize on the allied help.

'TRANSFER WITHIN A FEW DAYS'

The U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the action on Libya passed by a 10-0 vote but Russia and China, among five nations that abstained, have voiced doubts about the campaign, echoed by other emerging powers such as India and Brazil.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Moscow that he still saw a quick handover.

"I don't want to get out in front of the diplomacy that's been going on but I still think that a transfer within a few days is likely," Gates told reporters on a visit to Russia.

Opinion polls show mixed U.S. public support for the Libya campaign as some members of Congress step up criticism of Obama. Some lawmakers say he waited too long to get involved. Others say Obama has failed to define the mission in Libya and warn about sending stretched U.S. forces into a third war.

Obama, who will return from a trip to Latin America Wednesday, telephoned the Turkish and Qatari leaders Monday.

"I do believe the Turks have largely resolved the questions they had before," the senior U.S. official said. "We're confident that you are going to see more Arab participation than you've seen already."

One U.N. Security Council diplomat said on condition of anonymity that Turkey and United Arab Emirates were considering participating in the Libya operations by patrolling the port of Benghazi to ensure that it remained open for humanitarian deliveries.

(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, David Alexander, Missy Ryan, Steve Holland; Lou Charbonneau in New York and Phil Stewart in Moscow; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Bill Trott)