By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 6:58 AM
President Obama said Thursday that he had ordered plans giving the U.S. military "full capacity to act, potentially rapidly," in Libya if the situation there deteriorates.
"I don't want us hamstrung," Obama said. He cited the possibility of a humanitarian crisis, or "a situation in which defenseless civilians were finding themselves trapped and in great danger," or "a stalemate that over time could be bloody" if Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi continues to resist international demands that he step down.
Gaddafi "has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave," the president said.
But in his first public statement on Libya since the outbreak of widespread armed conflict between opposition forces and those loyal to Gaddafi, Obama expressed several notes of caution, stressing that the United States must act only "in consultation . . . with the international community."
"The region will be watching carefully to make sure we're on the right side of history," Obama said at a White House news conference with visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderon. As with Egypt and Tunisia, he said, U.S. interests were best served if the United States was not seen as engineering or imposing a particular outcome.
Having raised the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, and after moving warships into the Mediterranean, the United States and its allies appeared Thursday to step back from military intervention, even as opposition forces in Libya continued to call for assistance from foreign air power.
After their unexpected victory Wednesday over well-armed Gaddafi forces in the oil port of Brega, rebel fighters regrouped to bury their dead and to lay plans to carry the fight toward Tripoli, Libya's embattled capital.
Brega was hit Thursday by at least three powerful airstrikes, while rebels clashed with Gaddafi loyalists in the nearby Mediterranean town of Bishra. In Tripoli, there were signs of the government cracking down in an attempt to thwart plans for street protests after Friday prayers.
Activists in Benghazi, the eastern city that serves as the rebel capital, were calling for a million people to protest. On Friday, Gaddafi loyalists erected checkpoints in Tripoli, searching vehicles ahead of what was expected to be the first large anti-government protest there in days, according to the Associated Press. Additionally, the news agency said, Internet access appeared to be cut off in the city, which was unusually quiet ahead of noon prayers.
Some foreign journalists in Tripoli were blocked from leaving their hotel to observe the protests.
"These are exceptional circumstances," Gaddafi spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said, according to the Al Arabiya news agency. "I know you're going to talk about it and twist it the way you want. We are preparing to pay this price of preventing you guys from reporting to avoid turning Tripoli into Baghdad."
Pro-Gaddafi forces launched a renewed assault Friday on the opposition-controlled western city of Zawiya, where a resident said the city had come under attack with shells and machine-gun fire at 11 a.m. local time.
"We think they are going to try to take the [town] square," said the resident, speaking by phone with the sound of machine-gun fire echoing in the background. "They are about 7 kilometers [about 4 miles] away right now. We don't know yet how this is going to work out."
Meanwhile, at least some international leaders appeared chastened by warnings from their military forces that intervention would be complicated and fraught with uncertainty. Although the United States, Britain, France, Canada and others have indicated they would participate, if conditions warranted, Italy and Germany, among others, have said they would not.
At the United Nations and at NATO headquarters, diplomats and officials said that no decisions were pending and that no meetings were scheduled to discuss options on Libya.
"We're not proposing a no-fly zone. We're simply proposing the planning," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC. "None of these options are pain-free or simple."
"If there's a debate, it's over to what extent we should now decide how we're going to make a decision, if, in fact, we're going to decide," said a NATO official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
The Obama administration and its European allies have indicated that they would not act without authorization from the U.N. Security Council. Last weekend, that body unanimously adopted tough economic sanctions against Libya and warned it would not tolerate human rights abuses.
Arab and African governments have expressed serious reservations about granting the authority to use force, as has Russia. China's U.N. envoy, Li Baodong, told reporters Wednesday that Beijing wants the dispute to be resolved through dialogue.
Also Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned against what he called "loose talk" about the ease of establishing a no-fly zone. "Let's just call a spade a spade," Gates said. "A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya."
Geoff Morrell, Gates's spokesman, dismissed suggestions that the Pentagon was pushing back against administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said last week that a no-fly zone was under active consideration.
Gates and military leaders were providing a range of options for Obama, Morrell said Thursday on MSNBC. But "people should be under no illusions" about what would be involved in such intervention.
Although there were no reports of outright dissension among policymakers, several senior administration officials said they read Gates's comments, and similar statements by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as aimed at blocking a military role in Libya.
That point was also made Thursday by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who last weekend called for serious consideration of a no-fly zone. "Personally, I don't think it's loose talk . . . that this option should be given the strongest consideration," McCain said at a Senate hearing.
A wide range of U.S. and European officials said they doubted that any decision to intervene would come, absent a dramatic, highly visible event such as the widespread bombing of civilians.
"It's got to be graphic, it's got to be real," the NATO official said. "Then people say, 'Oh my God, it's enough.' "
Reports from Libya have indicated government airstrikes on munitions dumps and oil installations. On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch reported a missile strike, apparently aimed at rebels in a main square in Brega, that caused no injuries.
In Rome, the World Food Program said that a ship carrying more than 1,000 metric tons of wheat flour to Benghazi had returned to port in Malta without unloading, after reports of aerial bombardments near the Libyan city.
"It's difficult to know exactly what the situation on the ground is in terms of air raids," a European diplomat said. "We are looking, like everybody else, at the reports we get . . . To be honest, it's very difficult for us to know precisely what is going on hour by hour."
Even as they hesitate to use military force, the United States, Britain and others continued to position military assets in the region. On Thursday, about 400 Marines arrived in Athens en route to the USS Kearsarge, one of two U.S. amphibious assault ships that arrived in the Mediterranean this week.
Obama said that he has also authorized the use of U.S. military aircraft "to help move Egyptians who have fled [Libya] . . . to get back home to Egypt," adding that the U.S. Agency for International Development would charter additional aircraft to return nationals from other countries. Britain and France made similar announcements earlier in the week.
A Dutch Defense Ministry spokesman said his government was in "intensive negotiations" to gain the release of a Dutch helicopter crew involved in relief efforts that were captured over the weekend by Gaddafi forces.
Correspondents Anthony Faiola in Tunis, Leila Fadel in Benghazi, Libya, and Liz Sly and Steve Hendrix in Cairo and staff writers Colum Lynch at the United Nations and R. Jeffrey Smith and Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.