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Key lawmakers back no-fly zone over Libya as Obama hesitates

Liberals and conservatives in Congress say Western forces should protect Libyan rebels from Moammar Kadafi's air force. President Obama, however, appears to be sending contradictory messages.

March 03, 2011|By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • The idea of help from Western forces has been gaining among Libyan rebels, who had emphasized their desire to avoid outside military invention, fearing it could lead to a repeat of the occupation of Iraq.
The idea of help from Western forces has been gaining among Libyan rebels,… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Washington — President Obama's reluctance to use military force in Libya's civil upheaval is putting him at odds with key players in Congress and undermining White House efforts to be seen as backing political reform in the Middle East.

Obama has made it clear that Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi should relinquish power. But though the administration has insisted that "all options are on the table" to remove Kadafi, senior officials have signaled that they have no taste for imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has criticized "loose talk" about a no-fly zone, which he called a major effort that would be tantamount to an attack on an Arab state. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration is far from such a decision, warning of the need to avoid perceptions that the U.S. wants to "invade for oil."

But in Congress, liberals and conservatives have embraced the idea.

Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a customary supporter of the Obama White House, said the U.S. and its allies "should not be on the sidelines" as Kadafi attacks the Libyan people. The Senate on Tuesday adopted a nonbinding resolution calling for the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone.

A number of senior Republican lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who is chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, have strongly endorsed the idea.

Rogers said the no-fly zone also could deter Kadafi from striking rebels with his chemical weapons and offers the U.S. a way to "project power without getting engaged on the ground."

One congressional aide, who declined to be identified, citing office rules, said Obama, by calling for Kadafi to leave, "has now created a disconnect between what he says should happen and what he's willing to do to make that happen."

David Cortright of Notre Dame University's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies said Obama strived for weeks during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt to show the public that he was siding with the demonstrators against their autocratic rulers.

The debate over the no-fly zone "has again put Obama in a difficult spot," Cortright said. With public sentiment strongly against Kadafi, "Obama could take a lot of heat for not helping the Libyans get rid of this guy."

At a news conference Thursday, Obama did not indicate any movement in the administration's approach. He said a no-fly zone is "one of the options," but the current focus is on offering humanitarian relief to thousands of people who are trying to escape across the borders to Egypt and Tunisia.

Obama has said the United Nations should intervene if a government or any group is slaughtering its citizens.

The idea of help from Western forces has been gaining among Libyan rebels, who had emphasized their desire to avoid outside military invention, fearing it could lead to a repeat of the occupation of Iraq.

But on Wednesday, as Kadafi's forces showed their strength in battles with insurgents, members of a newly formed "interim national government council" in the rebel-held city of Benghazi signaled that they might need more firepower.

They said they wanted not only a no-fly zone but also strikes against the government's remaining strongholds and military equipment.

One U.S. official, asked to explain the administration's apparent contradictory messages of considering intervention while arguing against no-fly zones, said a primary goal has been to convince Kadafi aides of the international community's resolve in the hope that they decide to end their support of the dictator.

U.S. officials say that, ideally, they would like a U.N. Security Council resolution of support before enlisting allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to impose a no-fly zone.

Russia and China, permanent members of the Security Council, have said they do not support the idea. Turkey, a member of NATO, is also opposed.

But diplomats say that if Kadafi intensifies his air attacks, opinions could shift. They say it is also possible that Western nations eventually could mount an air operation without U.N. blessing

paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ken Dilanian contributed to this report.

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