Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No End In Site For NATO In Libya

BRUSSELS (AP) -- The military campaign in Libya began with what seemed a narrowly defined mission: to enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians from attack.

Two months later, the campaign has evolved into a ferocious pounding of the country's capital, Tripoli, in what appears an all-out effort to oust Moammar Gadhafi. But that goal remains elusive, raising the prospect of a quagmire in the desert. And the political will of the countries involved is being sorely tested.

The Libyan opposition remains weak. NATO, the North Atlantic military alliance which took over command of the campaign from the U.S. on March 31, appears to have no clear exit strategy. Two of the allies, Britain and France, have descended into public squabbling over bringing the fight closer to Gadhafi with attack helicopters. And the French foreign minister said Tuesday his country's willingness to continue the campaign was not endless.

Part of the challenge lies in the original U.N. resolution: It authorized the use of air power but forbade ground troops, even as it authorized "all necessary means" to protect civilians following Gadhafi's brutal suppression of the popular uprising against his rule.

From Yugoslavia to Iraq, recent history has shown that ousting a regime through air power alone is, at best, exceedingly difficult.

In Libya, it is not for lack of trying. What seemed at first to be limited strikes on military targets - tanks heading for the rebel-held city of Benghazi here, some anti-aircraft batteries there - has now expanded to the point that early Tuesday saw the biggest bombardment of the capital since the conflict began.

The targets have come to include, for example, Gadhafi's presidential compound; one of the leader's sons was killed April 30. NATO's official line is that the compound was a command-and-control center and it was not trying to kill Gadhafi. But clearly no one in the alliance would have shed a tear had the Libyan leader died.

There are signs of frustration, or perhaps desperation, among the allies. To avoid anti-aircraft fire, the campaign at first relied largely on high-altitude precision bombing, generally from above 15,000 feet (4,500 meters) - nearly three miles (five kilometers) high. But France said Monday that it now plans to deploy helicopter gunships to hit targets more precisely in urban areas while risking the lives of fewer civilians.

So far, no allied servicemen or women have been killed in the campaign. But by using helicopters and flying far lower, the French would be putting their pilots at greater risk, underscoring their intense desire to finish the Libyan operation sooner rather than later.

"I can assure you that our will is to ensure that the mission in Libya does not last longer than a few months," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said during a question-and-answer session at the French parliament Tuesday.

He said the action "may take days, weeks in my opinion (but) certainly not months."

The danger to pilots could be significant. Although Libya's surface-to-air missile network has been effectively destroyed, Gadhafi's forces are said to retain hundreds of heavy machine guns, automatic cannon and shoulder-launched missiles that would pose a danger to helicopters at lower altitudes.

In past conflicts, NATO has shied away from using slow-moving and low-flying helicopters and AC-130 gunships against opponents with such weaponry.

Read More from Associated Press

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