The two incidents underscored the perils of a military campaign the West is waging almost exclusively from the air, with shifting front lines and scattered allies with whom it has spotty lines of communication.
“NATO regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives and takes great care in conducting strikes against a regime determined to use violence against its own citizens,” Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, the Canadian commander of the alliance’s mission in Libya, said in a statement issued late Sunday.
NATO said that it intended to strike a military missile site but that “a weapons system failure” appeared to “have caused a number of civilian casualties.”
High-profile cases in which civilians were killed by U.S. and allied troops in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars became major turning points in those conflicts as anti-Western sentiment soared. And Sunday’s incident bolstered Gaddafi’s claim that the coalition’s operation is just the West’s latest bid to invade and pilfer a Muslim nation.
“We will never forgive, we will never forget,” Libyan Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi told reporters Sunday afternoon. He said the recent NATO bombings ought to “ignite a global jihad against the oppressive, criminal West.”
The Libya operation’s growing number of critics on Capitol Hill and in NATO capitals are certain to pounce on the incident to argue that the costly, three-month mission is foundering. The Obama administration has struggled to defend its stance that the U.S. role does not require congressional approval, while NATO is facing mounting questions about the pace and achievements of a campaign that Western leaders hoped would end within weeks.
Sunday marked the 90th day of the campaign, and Congress is likely to vote this week on amendments that would cut off funds for the operation or place restrictions on the use of U.S. troops.
“One hopes it will encourage NATO and Western governments to reconsider the case for a cease-fire, which they appear to have ignored until now,” said Hugh Roberts, a Libya expert at the International Crisis Group. “The great danger is that out of laziness, politicians will continue to succumb to the false argument that there is no alternative to military intervention.”
On Sunday, a spokesman for Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said this incident brought to mind something the senator had said previously.