U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, attends a meeting of NATO defense… (Virginia Mayo / Associated…)
Reporting from Brussels and Beirut — Members of the NATO military alliance parted company Wednesday over how quickly to halt the six-month bombing campaign in Libya, and the dangers of doing so if fighters loyal to Moammar Kadafi, the country's deposed strongman, are still engaged in armed resistance.
Western and NATO officials said privately that the decision on when to cease the air war has become a source of friction in the alliance even as Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters that "we are close to completing our mission."
Rasmussen, who met with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and other defense chiefs at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels, said that ending the air war, which began March 19, "is not dependent" on capturing Kadafi. "He's not the target of our operations."
Other officials cautioned, however, that halting the air combat missions too soon — including the nonstop patrols by armed U.S. drone and other surveillance aircraft — may encourage Kadafi loyalists still battling in Surt and other towns to continue resisting or to launch a broader insurgency once the warplanes are grounded.
"There are some that feel that we have done about all we can do," said a senior NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There are others who think [ending] the operation would be a signal to the remnants of the [Kadafi] regime that the [new Libyan leadership] is on its own now, and they should fight back."
The dispute centers on whether to suspend the bombing while fierce fighting still is underway for control of Surt, Kadafi's hometown. Regime loyalists are holding out in the coastal city, and NATO warplanes have been hitting ground positions.
"Some people believe that it's time now" to cease operations, said a Western official. Other allies believe that NATO should wait until Surt falls or until the last Kadafi forces are defeated.
U.S. officials are pushing to continue the air campaign at least until Surt falls, the Western official said. Panetta, attending his first NATO meeting since taking office, told reporters that the Libya operation was nearing a "successful" end, but he did not specify an exact time.
"Do we terminate if Surt falls, even if there's still limited fighting elsewhere?" the Western official asked. "The debate hinges on Surt."
The official added: "It's over. The question is how you end it correctly."
The debate could be resolved as soon as Thursday, when the defense chiefs are scheduled to resume discussions on Libya.
Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's top commander, has privately discussed with officials from alliance countries the options for halting the bombing campaign, but he did not lay them out at Wednesday's closed-door meeting of defense ministers, a NATO officer said.
Officials from the Transitional National Council, the ruling body in post-Kadafi Libya, also met with NATO officials in Brussels to consider a timetable for halting the air campaign.
Kadafi and his sons, who ruled the oil-rich North African nation for about 42 years, have been in hiding since the Western-backed rebels overran Tripoli, the capital, in mid-August.
The new Libyan leadership, supported by Western intelligence agencies, has mounted a manhunt for Kadafi that is focusing on the vast Sahara desert regions near Libya's borders with Niger and Algeria.
Fierce fighting against pro-Kadafi forces has continued in the coastal city of Surt and several other towns that were Kadafi strongholds.
The alliance still receives reports that small numbers of civilians are being held against their will, the NATO officer said.
The decision to end the air war would depend on an assessment of the security situation and on the transitional council's "ability to protect the civilian population," Rasmussen said.
NATO warplanes have conducted more than 20,000 sorties over Libyan airspace, and months of precision bombing of air defense units and command facilities have dealt a heavy strategic blow to Kadafi regime defenses and his military's morale.
The air campaign was authorized by a United Nations Security Council mandate to protect civilians after Kadafi publicly threatened to go house to house in rebel-held towns to eliminate his enemies. Kadafi and his international allies complained bitterly that the NATO campaign exceeded its legal writ and became a de facto rebel air force that sought to kill or oust him.
Early on, the airstrikes protected the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi from a counterattack by regime forces. Later, airstrikes helped rebel forces hold and expand positions farther west, including the port city of Misurata and the Berber highlands southwest of Tripoli.
NATO's no-fly zone made it difficult for Kadafi's forces to mount armored attacks or otherwise press their advantages against the ill-trained but spirited insurgents.