U.N. Authorizes Military Strikes on Libya

MARCH 17, 2011, 6:59 P.M. ET


The United Nations Security Council authorized military strikes on Libya Thursday evening, and U.S. and European officials said air attacks against Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces were possible "within hours."

The Pentagon was already fine-tuning military options for "serious" strikes against ground and air targets should the White House order them, said U.S. defense officials.

Options included using cruise missiles to take out fixed Libyan military sites and air-defense systems, according to these officials. Manned and unmanned aircraft could also be used against Col. Gadhafi's tanks, personnel carriers and infantry positions, with sorties being flown out of U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization bases in the southern Mediterranean.

"There is significant, serious planning going on right now," a U.S. official said. The options would be "more aggressive than a show of force."

Washington, however, was reluctant for any military operation in Libya to be seen as American-led. NATO involvement in military action was possible, depending on the outcome in the Security Council, a European diplomat said.

Since NATO is a consensus organization, an abstention by Germany at the U.N. and possible objection from Turkey would put in doubt whether agreement on such action is possible.

The assertive U.S. posture marked a turnaround from the early days of the month-old Libyan crisis, when President Barack Obama's administration, and particularly his defense advisers, seemed reluctant to embrace military action.

The president appeared to have found himself facing two unpleasant possibilities: Adding a third military commitment to the wars already underway in Afghanistan and Iraq, or watching Col. Gadhafi defeat—perhaps brutally—a rebellion sparked by regional pro-democracy uprisings.

U.S. officials said military action was preferable out of fear that, should Col. Gadhafi remain in power, he would slaughter those who had turned against him and perhaps return to his traditional support for international terrorism.

"If Gadhafi stays, he will do terrible things to Libya and her neighbors," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a visit Thursday to Tunisia, Libya's neighbor to the west. "It's in his nature—there are some creatures who are like that."

The vote came on a day in which Col. Gadhafi's forces advanced amid heavy fighting towards Benghazi, the de-facto capital of rebels seeking to unseat him.

Officials said the goal of international military action would be to protect civilians in Benghazi, push the government's forces back, and sow enough confusion and disorder within Libyan military ranks that officers would turn against the longtime dictator. Some U.S. officials say the Libyan army could crumble and turn on Col. Gadhafi after a series of major strikes.

"The U.S. doesn't want a war," an Obama administration official said. "But we want to prevent a slaughter."

Celebratory gunfire erupted in eastern Libya after satellite TV channels reported the approval of the Security Council resolution, with rebel supporting chanting "God is Great" and the Arab revolutions' slogan, "The People Want the Downfall of the Regime."

In Benghazi, under threat by Col. Gadhafi's troops, the rebel administration unleashed fireworks over the harbor seconds after the U.N. vote, and in the port city of Tobruq, tracer bullet volleys lit up the sky as boats in the harbor blew their horns.

The U.S. has enough planes and other military assets in place to begin strikes almost immediately, a defense official said.

A European official said the rapid advance of Col. Gadhafi's forces on rebel strongholds in eastern Libya in recent days meant that allied nations would need to move quickly to save the rebels.

The officials said this would include both the establishment of a no-fly zone to neuter the Libyan government's air force and offensive attacks to push back loyalist positions approaching Benghazi.

"We will have to take action within hours, not days," said the European official.

The status of Arab participation in any military action in Libya was also unclear.

U.S. and European officials stressed the importance of having Arab states take part in any coalition, both logistically and financially, after the Arab League backed the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were among countries that discussed the possibility of assisting the U.S. and French governments in Libya, according to Arab and European diplomats.

A number or Arab governments were still voicing reluctance to back a U.N.-mandated operation in Libya, given frustration over the White House's handling of the recent democracy surge in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., in particular, felt the U.S. abandoned its long-time ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and hadn't shown enough support for the Bahraini royal family.

"There is a serious trust deficit right now," said a senior Arab diplomat. "I don't see any of the Gulf countries participating in a no-fly zone."

A Downing Street spokesman said that British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday called a "number of Arab leaders" in a bid to get greater Arab participation in support for a U.N. resolution and through Thursday was trying to rally support with other European leaders.

Leading Republican lawmakers said during hearings on the Middle East Thursday that the White House should seek a war resolution from Congress before committing U.S. forces.

"If the Obama administration decides to impose a no-fly zone or take other significant military action in Libya, I believe it should first seek a congressional debate on a declaration of war," said Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

The State Department's No. 3 diplomat, William Burns, was non-committal in response. "I can't give you a yes-no answer," he said.

Administration officials sought a broad U.N. mandate, rather than just authority to impose a no-fly zone, because of concerns that Col. Gadhafi's troops would continue a ground assault even if they lacked air support. But U.S. officials have said there are no plans to insert U.S. ground forces into Libya, despite the presence of hundreds of Marine combat troops on ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

— Keith Johnson and Stephen Fidler contributed to this article.

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