Broader campaign needed to drive Gadhafi out, commander says

By John F. Burns

New York Times News Service

Published: Sunday, May 15 2011 7:49 p.m. MDT

TRIPOLI, Libya — Two months into the NATO bombing campaign against Moammar Gadhafi's forces, Britain's top military commander has said that the Libyan leader could remain "clinging to power" unless NATO broadened its bombing targets to include the country's infrastructure.

The comments, by Gen. David Richards, came at the end of a week that saw NATO step up its airstrikes, with an accelerated tempo of attacks on the capital, Tripoli. In the predawn hours of Thursday, a volley of heavy bunker-busting bombs that struck Gadhafi's underground command headquarters in the city appeared to have narrowly missed killing the Libyan leader.

Gadhafi's defiant audio message in the wake of that attack, telling NATO he was "in a place where you can't get me," appears to have played its part in galvanizing opinion among NATO commanders, particularly in Britain and France, two nations that have carried the bulk of the bombing campaign.

Britain, in particular, with heavy combat commitments in Afghanistan and mounting costs for the Libyan air campaign straining its military budget, has been concerned that the conflict could be settling into a long-running stalemate.

Under the U.N. Security Council resolution approving the Libyan air campaign, NATO was empowered to use "all necessary means" to protect the country's civilian population from attack by pro-Gadhafi forces, which hold Tripoli and much of western Libya, while rebel forces control much of the country's eastern region. That mandate has been stretched beyond attacks on tanks, artillery and other units engaged in front-line combat with the rebels to a wide range of targets in Tripoli and elsewhere that have been identified by NATO as "command-and-control" centers, including Gadhafi's Tripoli bunker.

But with the war now nearing the end of its fourth month and the two sides skirmishing for gains of a few miles in battle zones spread across hundreds of miles of desert and mountains, there has been growing concern in NATO capitals that the strategy needs a game-changing adjustment that might bring a rebel victory closer.

NATO officials have made no secret of their belief that this would most likely come with attacks that weaken Gadhafi's hold on Tripoli, ideally attacks that spread a sense of despondency among Gadhafi forces and lend an impetus to a rebel underground that has roots in some quarters of the city.

Richards, chief of the defense staff in Britain, spoke in an interview at NATO's southern headquarters in Naples, Italy, which has served as a command center for the attacks. "The vise is closing on Gadhafi, but we need to increase the pressure further through more intense military action," he said in the interview, published in The Sunday Telegraph. "We now have to tighten the vise to demonstrate to Gadhafi that the game is up and he must go."

He added that the bombing campaign, which has involved more than 2,500 sorties since it began March 19, had been "a significant success." But he added: "We need to do more. If we do not up the ante now there is a risk that the conflict could result in Gadhafi clinging to power."

The general suggested NATO should be freed from targeting restraints that have precluded attacking infrastructure targets; other NATO officials have suggested in recent weeks that these could include elements of the electrical power grid in government-held areas, and fuel dumps. And he defended attacks seemingly aimed at Gadhafi himself, saying that "if he was in a command-and-control center that was hit by NATO and he was killed, that would be within the rules."

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