By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; A01
The United States and its European allies are considering the use of naval assets to deliver humanitarian aid to Libya and to block arms shipments to the government of Moammar Gaddafi, even as they weigh the legality of imposing a no-fly zone without United Nations authorization, according to U.S. and European officials.
NATO military officials began briefing governments Tuesday night on a range of options that will be presented to defense ministers in Brussels on Thursday.
The Obama administration, NATO and other international organizations are united in their belief that any military intervention in Libya would require some international backing. But with a U.N. mandate far from assured, those considering some form of intervention - including the United States, Britain, France and Italy - are looking for alternative support, officials said.
Officials, saying international support could come from regional blocs, noted that NATO's air attacks on Serbia in 1999 came without U.N. backing.
"If you have [support from] the Arab League, the African Union, NATO and potentially the European Union, you have every country within 5,000 miles of Libya," a NATO official said. "That gives you a certain level of legitimacy."
The intense international deliberations came as troops loyal to Gaddafi continued to besiege the rebel-held city of Zawiyah, 27 miles west of Tripoli, for a fifth day on Tuesday, with rebel officials there citing a mounting toll - dozens dead and hundreds wounded, including women and children.
In Ras Lanuf, about 400 miles east of the capital, Gaddafi loyalists were engaged in fierce fighting with rebels who had hoped to march on Sirte, Gaddafi's home town and a strategically vital city still under tight government control.
Gaddafi made a surprise appearance at a hotel hosting foreign correspondents in Tripoli, arriving just before midnight, the Associated Press reported. He raised his fist in the air as he walked from his car to the hotel, then went into a room for about an hour to give exclusive television interviews before leaving without speaking to reporters waiting outside.
As they weighed the prospect of intervention, the Obama administration and European governments continued efforts to size up the Libyan opposition. "We feel that we don't really understand who they are yet," said a senior European diplomat who, like other officials interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss closely held deliberations. "They are more fractured and complicated and less well-coordinated than we would like."
France and Italy said they were in direct conversations with some opposition figures, and the State Department said it had held face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations in Rome and Cairo with members of the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council.
"We're talking to others beyond the membership of this council," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "Eventually, you know, within Libya a formal opposition will emerge. We're watching to see how that develops."
The administration has chosen not to step out in front in advocating military intervention, even as it has come under criticism by some congressional leaders who have pressed for a more robust response.
U.S. military planners and those from other NATO governments have prepared a range of alternatives, including the establishment of an air and/or naval bridge to carry humanitarian supplies or escort civilian ships into Benghazi and other rebel-held areas, as well as close-in naval patrols along the Libyan coast to monitor an existing arms embargo.
The proposed naval actions would not require a U.N. resolution. But governments are divided on both the advisability and the legality of a no-fly zone. Russia and China, with the power to veto a Security Council resolution, have indicated opposition. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an interview with Britain's Sky News on Tuesday, indicated that support from regional blocs might help win passage of a U.N. resolution.
In NATO, Germany has said it does not support a no-fly zone. NATO operates by consensus, and an operation would not be approved if any member chose to speak out against it.
In conversations this week with his U.S. and British counterparts, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Italy would make its air bases available for no-fly operations if they were supported by NATO, the E.U. and the Arab League, another European diplomat said.
None of those organizations has yet declared unqualified support for any outside military action. The Gulf Cooperation Council, the six-member association of the Persian Gulf Arab states, voiced its backing Monday. The French Foreign Ministry said Monday that Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa had voiced support for a no-fly zone during a meeting Monday in Paris, but the league has not declared itself, and some members, led by Syria and Algeria, are said to be opposed.
The Arab, European and African organizations have each scheduled separate meetings on the Libyan crisis this week, along with Thursday's NATO gathering. "We need some signal from the region that the action was welcome," one of the European diplomats said.
The Obama administration itself is divided on the utility of a no-fly zone.
"A no-fly zone is the robust man's option," one administration official said. "But what is it going to do to the balance of power in Libya?" With the Libyan government's assault concentrated on ground rather than air power, "it doesn't change it internally so it favors the rebels. It doesn't do much humanitarian good."
"It makes us feel good," the official said, and has some symbolic value in potentially frightening Gaddafi into giving up. "But what . . . if it doesn't work? Are you prepared to take the next step? We haven't had that debate yet, in part because we thought it was going to happen really quickly."
NATO maintained a no-fly zone over the disputed province of Kosovo for three years, while numerous atrocities occurred below, before sending its bombers to Serbia. In Libya, an imminent humanitarian catastrophe would be the best legal basis, short of a U.N. resolution, for a no-fly zone or other intervention, U.S. and European officials said. But such judgments are inherently subjective, said one official.
"This is the question," he said. "How many people being killed constitutes sufficient grounds?"
On Tuesday, witnesses in Zawiyah said the city, suffering from severe shortages of medicine and food, was coming under heavy mortar fire. "They are not yet rolling in with tanks like yesterday, but they are shelling us from a distance of three to four kilometers," said Mohamed Magid, an opposition spokesman in Zawiyah who spoke by satellite phone. Phone, Internet and electricity services had been cut in the city, he said. "They are hitting civilian buildings. There are civilian casualties. . . . We need help."
In a news conference in Benghazi, the opposition council denied widespread reports that Gaddafi had offered, through a third party, to give up power if he was allowed to leave the country. "There is no such proposal," said Abdul Hafidh Gogha, a council spokesman. "We have not been contacted. There is no emissary."
"We do expect the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya," Gogha said.
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations, correspondent Anthony Faiola and special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Tunis, and staff writer Steve Hendrix in Benghazi contributed to this report.