Libyans pray in the main square in Benghazi, the rebels' de facto capital.… (Sergey Ponomarev, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — With victory still elusive after 15 weeks of bombing, Western allies arrayed against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi are racing to crack his regime before their own coalition fractures.
Even as Libyan rebel fighters begin to show improvement and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization increases airstrikes in the western part of the country, signs of friction have appeared within NATO. Members have expressed concern about declining munitions inventories and warned that the costs and stresses of the campaign cannot be sustained.
The eight nations shouldering the military burden have been pushing in vain for the other 20 NATO members to take on a larger role. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, major players disagree among themselves on the best strategy. The urgent desire for a breakthrough has caused some members to take riskier steps in the hopes of defeating Kadafi quickly, including airdrops of weapons to rebels, which the French military recently announced it had carried out.
Several signs of discontent have become public. In the Netherlands, Defense Minister Hans Hillen complained last week of "mission creep" and suggested that the campaign's advocates were deluded in believing they could crush Kadafi.
"People who thought that merely by throwing some bombs it would not only help the people, but also convince Kadafi that he could step down or alter his policy were a little bit naive," Hillen told reporters in Brussels.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini scolded the coalition over the accidental killing of civilians and called for a cease-fire — a step that U.S., British and French officials say would allow Kadafi to regroup.
In Washington, the Obama administration faces pressure from Republicans as well as antiwar Democrats. A GOP-sponsored measure to curb U.S. participation failed in a vote on the House floor, partly because some Republicans felt it wasn't restrictive enough.
Norway, whose small air force has carried out a disproportionate 10% of the strikes with six fighter planes, last month became the first country to set an end date to its role. The government has been facing calls for withdrawal from its leftist coalition partners. Norway's Defense Ministry said it planned to reduce its contribution to four fighters and to withdraw entirely by Aug. 1.
Senior European and American officials insist there has always been such dissent over NATO campaigns and that the players who count remain firmly committed. The alliance formally agreed last month to extend the mission, originally planned for 90 days, for another three months.
Officials and outside observers also acknowledge that pressure is growing for the coalition to deliver a knockout blow. If not, the Western powers, under acute economic stress and struggling with other military obligations, might have to negotiate an exit on terms that could leave Kadafi some leverage.
"All the countries are watching an economic and political time clock," said Jorge Benitez, a veteran NATO watcher at the Atlantic Council of the United States. "The question is: Whose coalition will break first, Kadafi's or NATO?"
NATO also faces pressure from outside the alliance. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov said Monday that his nation and NATO "so far don't see eye to eye" on how the alliance is implementing the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the campaign in Libya, the Russia 24 TV channel reported.
Lavrov particularly criticized the reported French air drops of weapons, saying they violate a U.N. arms embargo on Libya. "This also applies to sending instructors to pass on military knowledge and skills; all of this is covered by the weapons embargo," Lavrov said at a news conference in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, where he met with NATO officials.
Kadafi may be seeking to heighten the rifts within NATO, issuing a statement Friday threatening to "move the battle to Europe."
The greatest source of internal pressure on NATO is from leftist and anti-interventionist parties, whose complaints are increasing even as polls suggest that the European public isn't particularly upset by the military engagement.
In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government has been a strong backer of the campaign, but it is under pressure from a coalition partner, the Northern League, which fears the fighting will lead to a further influx of African immigrants.
France and Britain, which have led the way on the campaign, are bearing the brunt of the military burden and costs, and they are eager to bring the conflict to an end. Their officials have been looking for ways to intensify the campaign and bring it to a close, parting company with the Obama administration, which has been urging patience.
The U.S. has reduced its role to logistical and intelligence support after carrying out intense airstrikes in the campaign's opening days and has declined British and French invitations to resume a combat role.