By Leila Fadel and Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 4:50 PM
BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Locked in a standoff with forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi, opposition leaders here debated Tuesday whether to request foreign airstrikes against the longtime ruler's military installations and other key facilities.
Members of a council governing Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the center of the anti-Gaddafi movement, said the issue has taken on increasing urgency amid a realization that the rebels cannot match the weaponry and firepower of the Gaddafi loyalists and that, without foreign help, the stalemate may never end.
"We want logistical foreign intervention, air embargoes, bombardments of air bases, communication centers and supervision of the coasts," said Muftah Queidir, a lawyer close to Benghazi's governing coalition. "Otherwise, the battle will take too long, and it will never end, and more people will die, and there will be a big question mark over the future of Libya."
Queidir, whose 26-year-old son was fatally shot on Feb. 19 by Gaddafi's forces, added: "The two sides are not equal. There needs to be intervention under the cover of the United Nations."
Three committee members later said they would make the request for airstrikes soon, reversing earlier pledges not to seek foreign military intervention. They said they now understand that they cannot match the military capacity or money that Gaddafi has at his disposal. But they stipulated that they still do not want any foreign ground troops in Libya.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Libya could face a "protracted civil war" without a strong U.S. response to the turmoil there. And a top U.S. military official cautioned that imposing a no-fly zone over Libya would require first crippling that country's air defenses, including surface-to-air missiles and the Libyan air force.
However, top Russian diplomats ruled out the idea of establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, the Associated Press reported. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the proposal "superfluous" and said new U.N. Security Council sanctions should be given a chance to work.
The Russian ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, used harsher terms, warning that foreign military action would be "a serious mistake" and a "violation of international law." He said even a no-fly zone would amount to "serious interference into the domestic affairs of another country" and would require a U.N. Security Council resolution.
The Benghazi council met after Libyan soldiers and paramilitary forces loyal to Gaddafi attempted Tuesday to retake territory that has been seized by rebels. Neither side appeared to gain ground, however, according to accounts of the fighting from residents and opposition officials.
In a six-hour battle, rebels armed with tanks, antiaircraft guns and automatic weapons repelled an overnight attack by government troops using the same weapons in the town of Zawiya, about 30 miles west of the capital, Tripoli, the Associated Press reported. The rebels celebrated Tuesday with a victory march through the city's main square, carrying on their shoulders an air force colonel they said had defected to them, the news agency said.
Opposition forces also beat back an attack by pro-Gaddafi troops in Misurata, Libya's third-largest city about 130 miles east of Tripoli. The troops, who control part of an air base on the outskirts of the city, tried to advance Monday night but were held off by armed residents and army defectors, AP said.
Faced with the stalemate and the looming difficulty of paying salaries to Benghazi citizens, 95 percent of whom have state jobs, people associated with the city's governing Feb. 17 Committee described a mood of growing demoralization.
"There is a crisis," said Salwa Bugaighis, a lawyer involved with the coalition. "There's conflict between despair and hope for foreign intervention."
Bugaighis said the committee had no direct contacts with foreign governments. But she said a national council formed earlier this week to govern eastern Libya during the standoff may gain legitimacy in the international community and create an opportunity for foreign help.
Despite claims by military leaders that they were sending rebel forces to Tripoli to help liberate the city, it was clear that they could not overcome the capability of Gaddafi's well-armed loyalists. So far, it appears that no rebel forces have arrived in the capital, and the city remains largely under Gaddafi's control.
Indeed, the battle for control of the North African country seemed to be settling into a stalemate, with pro-Gaddafi forces unable to recapture any of the cities or territory held by the opposition, despite episodic attacks that included the use of helicopters and warplanes, residents and opposition officials said. The strikes demonstrated that the regime remained able to fight back with potentially lethal weaponry.
At the same time, Tripoli residents opposed to Gaddafi so far have been unable to seize control of his stronghold and achieve their ultimate goal of ousting him from power - a fact made evident by Gaddafi's hosting of U.S. and British reporters at a seaside restaurant in the capital.
Opposition groups have asked the international community to keep any aircraft still under Gaddafi's control from flying or firing on them.
In what amounted to his first news conference since protests broke out in the country, Gaddafi held court on Monday with reporters from ABC, the BBC and London's Sunday Times - a performance U.S. officials promptly labeled "delusional."
He said he could not step down from power because, under Libya's peculiar "stateless" form of socialism, he is not a president or a king. He also asserted that there have been no demonstrations against him in Tripoli, ABC News reported.
"They love me," Gaddafi said in the interview. "All my people [are] with me. . . . They will die to protect me."
Gaddafi also denied ever using force against his people, accused al-Qaeda of encouraging young Libyans to seize arms from military installations and said he felt betrayed by the United States.
"I'm surprised that we have an alliance with the West to fight al-Qaeda, and now that we are fighting terrorists they have abandoned us," he said. "Perhaps they want to occupy Libya."
Responding to Gaddafi's remarks on NBC's "Today" show, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Tuesday: "Anytime you have somebody who laughs with American and international journalists while slaughtering his own people, I think they're not only delusional. One has to begin to question their grip on reality." She added that "we're dealing with somebody who is no longer, if ever was, fit to lead his nation and whose behavior is unpredictable and irrational."
Rice said the United States is in contact with "leaders of civil society" in Libya but is not backing any particular person. "We are not going to be in the business of picking leaders or dictating how that transition [to representative government] ought to evolve," she said. "And we're not anointing anybody a leadership position."
In an interview on CBS, Rice suggested that Gaddafi might consider exile. "It's important that he get off the stage," she said, adding that exile "may be an option that he looks at." But she said Gaddafi could still be subject to prosecution "for the crimes that he and those closest to him have committed."
With opposition groups in control of much of Libya's coast and edging close to Tripoli, fighting broke out Monday in Misurata, 125 miles east of Tripoli, when residents fired at a helicopter that was trying to destroy the antenna of the local radio station - an important communications tool for the opposition.
According to residents of the town and a witness account, the helicopter was armed with missiles, but flew away after opposition supporters opened fire. It was the third time in as many days that helicopters have attempted to attack the antenna or the radio station, residents said.
The residents were contacted by telephone and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear for their lives.
Though Misurata was overrun by protesters last Thursday, Gaddafi loyalists are still holding out at an airbase and a barracks on the edge of the town. There are daily attacks and counterattacks between the two sides, the residents say.
On Monday night, two people were killed and one was injured by sniper fire coming from the barracks, according to hospital officials, bringing to 34 the number killed in recent days. More than 300 have been wounded, the officials said.
A helicopter also attacked a military weapons depot Monday in Heniya, just outside Ajdabiya, a town about 100 miles south of Benghazi, said Idriss Sharif, an adviser to a committee that has come together to manage Benghazi.
A fighter pilot from the air force base in Benghazi, an opposition stronghold 600 miles east of the capital, said weapons and ammunition have been moved from storage units in case of a strike on the base. Over the past few days, the air force here has been setting up antiaircraft weapons to protect against airstrikes on the town, the center of resistance against Gaddafi's regime.
At 4 p.m. Monday, an airstrike hit just south of the airport, slamming into a weapons depot in Rajma village, said an official at the Benina airport, outside the city. Earlier in the day, fighter jets were circling over the airport but did not strike, the airport official said.
Sly reported from Cairo. Staff writer William Branigin in Washington and correspondent Anthony Faiola in Tunisia contributed to this report.