The United States and European NATO allies rebuffed French and British calls to contribute more actively to ground strikes in the air war in Libya despite fears of a military stalemate.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told NATO ministers meeting in Berlin it was vital for the alliance to maintain “resolve and unity” against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. But she gave no indication Washington was prepared to re-engage fully in ground strikes.
As they met, a spokesman for the anti-Gaddafi rebels besieged in the western city of Misrata warned of an impending “massacre” unless NATO intervened more decisively. The rebels said 23 civilians were killed in a rocket attack on a residential zone near Misrata port Thursday, Reuters reports.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, brushed aside French and British complaints about the pace of air strikes
Spain said it had no plan to join the seven of the 28 NATO states that have been involved in ground strikes. Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, said it would need to hear convincing arguments for it to do so.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said after talks with Clinton in Berlin that the United States was not going to review its military position on Libya despite a request from Paris.
“I told her we need them and that we would like them to come back,” Juppe told journalists. “I think they will stick to the same line.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States was receptive to the concerns of its allies but believed NATO was doing a good job in Libya and the U.S. military would continue to play a supporting role.
A senior U.S. official said NATO had made no direct request to the United States to provide more aircraft.
“We have said all along that we want other allies to step up. We are certainly doing our fair share,” the official said.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a news conference that NATO ministers had committed to provide “all necessary resources” to the mission and to maintain “a high operational tempo against legitimate targets.”
NATO’s supreme commander, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, needed “a few more precision ground attack aircraft,” he said.
NATO officials said he was not referring to low-flying A-10 “tankbuster” planes and AC-130 gunships which only the United States has, and which French officials have said could help break the deadlock in the battle against Gaddafi.
Rasmussen said he had received no specific pledges for more aircraft in Berlin but “indications that give me hope.” “And by nature, I’m an optimist,” he said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague was also hopeful on providing more ground attack aircraft. “There are certainly quite a few countries that don’t rule out doing so and that may well give consideration to it,” he told Reuters.
LIMITED SUPPORTING ROLE
While the United States conducted most of the initial strikes on Libya last month, President Barack Obama has pledged only a limited supporting role under the NATO command and the Pentagon said Thursday U.S. planes had dropped bombs in only three missions since handing over two weeks ago.
Obama has been reluctant to become entangled in another war in a Muslim state when he is trying to disengage from long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Americans are preoccupied with economic and budget problems.
French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said this week that Gaddafi’s attacks would not be stopped without U.S. participation in strikes on his tanks and artillery, which ceased after NATO took command of Libyan operations on March 31.
A NATO official said Wednesday the alliance was still short of about 10 aircraft to conduct air strikes. A French official named Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden as countries that could do more to assist operations.
A statement agreed by the ministers “strongly endorsed” a call for Gaddafi to leave power issued by the contact group on Libya that met in Doha Wednesday and involves some 16 Western and Middle Eastern nations.
A U.S. official in Berlin said the notion of Gaddafi going into exile was “not off the table.” But he declined to say whether there had been any discussion at the NATO meeting of possible destinations.
“Gaddafi’s departure, Gaddafi leaving Libya, is certainly one of the issues that’s being discussed among a broad range of partners,” the official said.
Rasmussen said NATO would exert pressure for as long as necessary until Gaddafi’s forces halted attacks on civilians and withdrew to their bases from all populated areas they have forcibly occupied, listing 12 towns across the country.
A U.S. official said there was no consensus among the allies on whether to start arming the rebels, but he reiterated Obama’s statement that he “hasn’t ruled it out and hasn’t ruled it in.”
NATO’s mandate commits it to upholding a U.N. arms embargo barring all weapons shipments to “the Libyan Jamahiriyah,” a term U.S. officials say means the government. Diplomats and analysts said the rebels could be supplied covertly.
Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen said the Danish parliament had decided Denmark would not be involved in arming rebels. “But if anyone else wants to interpret the U.N. resolution in any other way, that’s their decision,” she said.