A man holds a photo said to be the body of Moammar Kadafi after announcement… (Abdel Magid al-Fergany…)
Reporting from London and Washington — With the capture and death of Moammar Kadafi, NATO's aerial assault on Libya essentially ended the same way it began: with warplanes raining down bombs on him in the name of a U.N. mandate to protect civilians from his loyalists, while helping Kadafi's enemies run him to ground.
Throughout the seven-month operation, the alliance in essence served as the anti-Kadafi fighters' air force, crippling the strongman's forces and installations with relentless sorties that at times came close to killing him as well. The final assault was said to have been delivered by a French fighter jet and a U.S. Predator drone missile aiming at his convoy as he tried to flee his last stronghold in the city of Surt.
As they have throughout the campaign, NATO officials insisted Thursday that they were not targeting Kadafi himself. A senior officer in the alliance said there was no specific intelligence that Kadafi was in either of the two vehicles that were hit, which were part of the larger convoy maneuvering through the area.
PHOTOS: Moammar Kadafi | 1942 - 2011
"Those vehicles seemed to be directing the actions of the others, and they were struck. For all we know it could have been a lower-level leader," the officer said.
Though video circulating worldwide shows Kadafi surviving the air attack, the bloodied leader was left in the hands of revolutionary forces who appeared either unable or unwilling to keep him safe in the murky minutes before his death.
With Kadafi now gone, NATO is expected to end its Libya intervention within days. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said no formal decision to halt operations had been made but that with the fall of the last two major outposts of Kadafi loyalists, his hometown of Surt and the town of Bani Walid, "that moment has now moved much closer."
Since its launch in March, the aerial campaign has involved nearly 10,000 strike sorties flown by NATO warplanes, which have taken out key military installations and other government command centers.
On Thursday, leaders of several of NATO's European member nations were basking in Kadafi's demise.
"People in Libya today have an even greater chance after this news of building themselves a strong and democratic future," British Prime Minister David Cameron said outside 10 Downing St. "I'm proud of the role that Britain has played in helping them to bring that about, and I pay tribute to the bravery of Libyans who helped to liberate their country."
Cameron had taken a political risk by leading the push for NATO intervention alongside French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Even Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, once so friendly with Kadafi that he was photographed kissing the Libyan leader's hand, expressed no regret over his death.
"Sic transit gloria mundi," Berlusconi was quoted as saying, Latin for "Thus passes the glory of the world." He added, "Now the war is finished."
But the operation also laid bare the divisions within the world's most powerful military bloc. The difficulty in getting the alliance to take united action, the halfhearted support from some key members and the desire by the U.S. to take a back-seat role have all raised questions about the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The bombing campaign and a naval embargo, launched after Kadafi had vowed to slaughter civilians in rebel-held Benghazi, went poorly at first as government fighters responded by stepping up ground attacks. But the daily pounding by NATO warplanes, especially after the Pentagon provided a small fleet of armed Predator drones, eventually helped cripple Kadafi and his remaining loyalists, without NATO suffering a single combat death.
Critics questioned whether the war was advisable for the alliance while it was engaged in a more important conflict in Afghanistan. And by August, after the anti-Kadafi forces had captured Tripoli and most of the rest of the country, some wondered if the continued airstrikes in the remaining battle zones were endangering civilians rather than protecting them. To some, the continuing assaults could be interpreted as an almost personal vendetta against a dictator who, before armed hostilities began, was being avidly courted by the West.
Several leading NATO members, including Italy and Germany, had been reluctant for NATO to get involved, one of the many signs of discord within the 28-nation alliance in March as it wrestled with whether to shoulder the responsibility of protecting Libyan civilians.
Germany abstained from voting on the U.N. resolution on the issue and withdrew troops from the Mediterranean to avoid their involvement in Libya, though Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to send more personnel to Afghanistan to compensate. Turkey, the only Muslim nation in NATO, also expressed reservations.
In the end, only eight member countries sent their fighter jets into the skies above Libya, led mostly by the British and the French. Yet even with those nations in the vanguard, it was still American hardware and software that made the difference, despite Washington's desire to take a smaller role, analysts said.
"This mission has brought some of NATO's weaknesses and divisions to the forefront," said Shashank Joshi, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute, a security think tank in London. "It's shown us that European members of NATO can't function in a coherent way without incredibly extensive help from the U.S."
Chu reported from London and Cloud from Washington.