Coalition considers arming Libyan opposition
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WASHINGTON -- The United States and its allies are considering whether to supply weapons to the Libyan opposition as coalition airstrikes fail to dislodge government forces from around key contested towns, according to U.S. and European officials.
France actively supports training and arming the rebels, and the Obama administration believes the United Nations resolution that authorized international intervention in Libya has the "flexibility" to allow such assistance, "if we thought that were the right way to go," Obama spokesman Jay Carney said. It was a "possibility," he said.
Gene Cretz, the recently withdrawn U.S. ambassador to Libya, said administration officials were having "the full gamut" of discussions on "potential assistance we might offer, both on the non-lethal and the lethal side," but that no decisions had been made.
The coalition has stepped up its outreach to the opposition, inviting one of its senior leaders to a high-level international conference in London on Tuesday, called to determine future political strategy in Libya.
Increased focus on aiding the rebels came as NATO reached final agreement on taking over command and control of all aspects of the Libya operation, including U.S.-led airstrikes against forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, at NATO's Joint Forces Command headquarters in Naples, Italy, is expected to take command of the operation early next week.
The NATO decision, made late Thursday, followed days of debate over the scope of alliance participation and came in time for President Barack Obama to brief a bipartisan group of nearly two dozen congressional leaders in a call Friday afternoon.
Mr. Obama has scheduled a speech at the National Defense University on Monday night "to update the American people" on actions taken "with allies and partners to protect the Libyan people . . . the transition to NATO command and control, and our policy going forward," the White House announced.
Unlike a week ago, when the White House discouraged questions during a briefing for lawmakers as the Libya mission began, Mr. Obama entertained queries from lawmakers during an hour-long call Friday. He was asked repeatedly about the goal of the operation and how long it would take.
His emphasis on the mission's humanitarian objectives, and plans to decrease U.S. involvement as other nations increase their roles, appeared to satisfy some, but not all.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., called Mr. Obama's presentation "very clear, very strong" and said he expected strong bipartisan support. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said through a spokesman that he appreciated the update but wanted more clarity "on the military objective in Libya, America's role, and how it is consistent with U.S. policy goals."
The United States has flown the majority of the combat air sorties over Libya since strikes began last weekend. The administration has been eager to hand off both its lead combat role and overall operational command in keeping with Mr. Obama's portrayal of the operation as an international humanitarian mission.
Arab support for the effort has been a key selling point, and the Pentagon announced that fighter planes from Qatar had participated for the first time Friday in no-fly patrols over Libya. The United Arab Emirates also announced it would send F-16s for the patrols.
The Arabs are not expected to participate in ongoing combat strikes being flown by U.S, French and British forces. In a Pentagon briefing, U.S. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, said that allied warplanes had flown 153 missions and launched 16 additional Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libyan forces and installations in the past 24 hours.
But Adm. Gortney said that so far the attacks had not had a discernible impact on the ability of Gadhafi's forces to fight and attack Libya's cities.
Officials have said that no consideration is being given to the use of allied ground forces to push out Gadhafi loyalists. But if the current stalemate on the ground continues, the U.S. could bring in slower-moving AC-130 gunships, attack helicopters or armed drones that can mount more discreet strikes and are better suited to battles in urban terrain.
First Published March 26, 2011 12:00 am