Arab League's backing of no-fly zone over Libya ramps up pressure on West

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 13, 2011

CAIRO - The Arab League endorsed the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya on Saturday and recognized the fledgling rebel movement seeking to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi as the country's legitimate government, increasing pressure on Western powers to intervene in what increasingly resembles a civil war.

The move represents an extraordinary step by the leading Arab organization, historically reluctant to sanction a member, and provided fresh evidence of the reformist spirit recasting long-stagnating Arab politics. It was also a risky step for a number of Arab leaders facing domestic dissent of their own.

The vote significantly ratchets up pressure on the Obama administration and its European allies to act on behalf of Libya's rebels, who are under heavy assault from Gaddafi's far better-armed forces. NATO has called Arab League support a precondition for military action in Libya, and the Saturday vote gave new momentum to proposals for a protective no-fly zone over the oil-rich country.

"The main priority right now is to stop the deadly situation," said Amr Moussa, the Arab League's secretary general, in announcing the decision after 51/2 hours of closed-door deliberations.

The Arab League acted on the eve of a potentially decisive week of international diplomacy surrounding events in Libya, and the White House welcomed the vote in a short statement.

"The international community is unified in sending a clear message that the violence in Libya must stop, and that the Gaddafi regime must be held accountable," the statement said. "The United States will continue to advance our efforts to pressure Gaddafi, to support the Libyan opposition, and to prepare for all contingencies, in close coordination with our international partners."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton travels to the region Monday for meetings with representatives of the rebels' provisional government, the National Transitional Council, based in the eastern city of Benghazi. NATO officials will meet midweek to consider a no-fly-zone proposal, as France and Britain draft a resolution authorizing the mission for possible U.N. Security Council review.

The Arab League vote called on the Security Council to approve the no-fly zone as quickly as possible. But the Obama administration, which is already fighting two wars in Muslim countries, faces a number of issues in Libya that complicate any military intervention.

The administration knows little about Libya's rebels or what kind of government would replace Gaddafi's erratic 41-year-long rule. It also has to contend with a de facto civil war on the ground that makes intervention more urgent and complex by the day.

Purpose still debated

Military analysts differ on whether a no-fly zone would significantly change the balance of power in Libya, now shifting swiftly toward Gaddafi's forces. Much of the fighting is being done by ground forces, including tank-fired artillery, but the government has used air power to bomb rebel positions.

Adopting the recommendation of a no-fly zone, however, would probably send a message to Gaddafi and his inner circle, that the United States and its European allies intend to intensify pressure to achieve their declared goal of ousting the Libyan leader.

Conservatives and liberal interventionists are growing increasingly vocal about what they deem the need for a no-fly zone to ensure that Gaddafi does not remain in power. At a Friday news conference, Obama said that "we're going to take a wide range of actions to try to bring about that outcome."


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