WASHINGTON – Warning that Libya is at the crossroads of democracy and civil war, the United States vowed Tuesday to press Moamer Kadhafi to step down by squeezing him economically and militarily.
Washington and its allies sharpened their focus on possible military action, including a no-fly zone that a US commander now says would first require bombing Libya’s air defenses.
Kadhafi has been fighting a bloody rearguard action against a pro-democracy uprising now in its third week, with at least 1,000 people reported killed and 100,000 people fleeing to neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
“In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy, or it could face protracted civil war, or it could descend into chaos,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The stakes are high,” Clinton said in testimony aimed at encouraging Republican congressmen to drop plans to drastically cut the US foreign aid budget at a time of turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa.
“And this is an unfolding example of using the combined assets of smart power — diplomacy, development and defense — to protect American security and interests and advance our values,” the chief US diplomat said.
Kadhafi is defiant about staying in power, although his regime now controls only some western areas around the capital and a few long-time bastions in the arid south. Key oil fields in the east have fallen to the opposition.
His son Saif al-Islam Kadhafi said last week that Libya faces civil war and “rivers of blood.”
Clinton said Washington understands the Libyan opposition wants to “be seen as doing this by themselves” as they try to dislodge Kadhafi and his forces from the capital Tripoli and a few other areas he holds.
They want “that there not be outside intervention by any external force, because they want this to have been their accomplishment,” she said.
But the Pentagon and NATO allies have “begun to look at potential planning, preparedness in the event that we feel it’s necessary for both humanitarian and other reasons that there would have to be actions taken,” she said.
She said “one of those actions that is under review is a no-fly zone,” where Libyan warplanes and helicopters would be grounded by US and allied military force to prevent them from attacking the Libyan people.
General James Mattis, the head of Central Command which oversees US forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan, told a Senate committee that enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya would first require bombing its air defense systems.
“It would be a military operation,” the general said.
Defense officials said a warship, the USS Kearsarge, with hundreds of Marines on board was headed towards Libya on Tuesday.
The amphibious assault ship accompanied by two other naval vessels, was expected to pass through the Suez Canal soon from the Red Sea, two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
“We’re certainly moving assets to be closer (to Libya),” one of the defense officials said.
US military leaders are preparing a range of options for President Barack Obama and holding discussions with their European counterparts, but the likelihood of military intervention remained unclear, the official said.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said “the international community is going to keep the pressure on” as she referred to the recent imposition of unilateral and multilateral economic economic sanctions.
“The European Union adopted strong sanctions yesterday, joining the United States, which has seized $30 billion in Kadhafi-related assets,” Rice told ABC television’s “Good Morning America” program.
“We’re going to keep the pressure on Kadhafi until he steps down and allows people to express themselves freely and determine their own future,” she said.
US officials “are taking prudent steps to prepare for potential humanitarian contingencies,” Rice told NBC television’s “Today Show” program.
She said that included “the movement of naval assets in the Mediterranean area so that if and when we and others are called upon to assist the Libyan people and the humanitarian way we are able to do so quickly.”
US officials have also contacted a broad range of opposition leaders to help Libyans “form the sort of organizations, political parties, entities they feel are justified and warranted in the circumstances,” Rice said.