Compromise emerges for NATO role in Libya fight

By Don Melvin

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 22 2011 5:40 p.m. MDT

Libyan rebels try to take cover as mortars from Moammar Gadhafi's forces are fired on them on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Tuesday, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat just last week.

Anja Niedringhaus, Associated Press

BRUSSELS — A compromise is emerging that would see NATO take a key role in the military operation in Libya guided by a political committee of foreign ministers from the West and the Arab world.

The deal is not done yet. To participate, NATO needs the approval of all 28 of its member nations, including Turkey, which has been insisting on a narrow military mandate and assurances that no occupation of Libya will ensue.

But after a busy day of diplomacy, including telephone calls from President Barack Obama to the leaders of France and Britain, broad agreement was reached for NATO to play an important role in the operation.

The compromise would solve two problems: It would give the United States, which has been coordinating the military effort but is eager to hand off those duties, an organization to hand off to. A number of European leaders have said that, other than the U.S., only NATO has the capacity, experience and staff to coordinate such an international operation.

And it would provide political cover for NATO, which some say has been tainted in the eyes of the Arab world by its participation in the war in Afghanistan.

Obama, speaking Tuesday in El Salvador, said he was confident the U.S. could hand over control of the operation within days. He said the four-day assault on Libya, which was authorized by the United Nations, had already saved the lives of civilians who would otherwise have been targeted by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

"When this transition takes place it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone. It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily enforcing the arms embargo. That's precisely what the other nations are going to do," Obama told a news conference.

With congressional critics growing vocal about the deployment of American military forces, the president defended the wisdom of the operation.

"It is in America's national interests to participate ... because no one has a bigger stake in making sure that there are basic rules of the road that are observed, that there is some semblance of order and justice, particularly in a volatile region that's going through great changes," Obama said.

Earlier Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed the creation of a wider political committee to run the operation, which would include the Arab League as well as NATO members.

"For us, the intervention is firstly an operation wanted by the United Nations. ... It is run by a coalition of member states, all of whom are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization," said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe in outlining the proposal.

"This is, therefore, not a NATO operation, even if it must be able to rely on military planning and intervention capacities of the Alliance," Juppe said.

He said the new body would bring together foreign ministers of participating states — including Britain, France and the U.S. — as well as several Arab nations. It is expected to meet in coming days, either in Brussels, London or Paris.

In Washington, a senior administration official said NATO would play a key role through its command and control capabilities, but that it would be part of a broader international effort. The new committee reinforces the idea that this is an international campaign that extends beyond NATO, the official said.

Under such a plan, the U.S. military would shift to a supporting role, focusing on elements such as jamming, aerial refueling and intelligence support. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to divulge confidential details of the plan.

The goal of the operation would be to protect civilians, not to force a change of government in Libya, he said.

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