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Timing not yet right for Libya intervention, Italy says

Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti says Libya must shore up domestic support before any deliberation of outside military help. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)

Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti, one of the central figures in allied deliberations on war-torn Libya, said Wednesday that the conditions are not yet right to launch a Western military operation to help stabilize that country.

The Italians have been among the most vocal European powers to insist that Libya's shaky unity government must shore up domestic support — and then request international assistance — before any allied operation could unfold.

The new Libyan government, installed this past March and backed by the United Nations, is making strides, Pinotti said in an interview with The Washington Post. But she also warned of deepening complications.

The unity government not only is confronting a threat from Islamic State insurgents, but also a challenge from unruly militias and rival factions with which it still needs to build more support, she said. On Tuesday, for instance, factions in eastern Libya sought to block the unity government from exercising control over exports of oil produced in the country’s east.

Importantly, Pinotti said, the unity government has also failed to secure a vote backing it in the country’s internationally recognized parliament in Tobruk.

“In the past few days, we’ve been seeing a worrisome setback,” she said.

She later added, “the first step to stabilize Libya is having a government that can represent the different parts, and can thus take the necessary step to make a request to the international community” for military assistance.

Pinotti said, however, that she would push at a July 7 NATO summit in Warsaw for an effort in the central Mediterranean Sea that could see ships from the European Union, and possibly NATO, stage coordinating operations off the Libyan coast. Such an operation, she said, would be cobbled together from existing military assets in the area. But it would also be broader, she said, than a similar mission already underway in the Aegean Sea aimed at thwarting migrant smugglers trying to enter Europe via Greece.

“The Aegean mission is strictly tied to fighting traffickers,” she said. “But we think the issue of security in the Mediterranean is more complex. Arms, for example. There should be an embargo against arms. And then the issue of surveillance, for example, counterterror operations.”

Western allies consider the participation of Italy in any military mission involving Libya to be key, in part because of the country’s proximity to Libya as well as its longtime economic and diplomatic ties to a nation it occupied in the early 20th century. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has repeatedly ruled out any “invasion” involving thousands of Italian troops. But he and other Italian officials have been less clear on the specifics of what, exactly, they would consider doing.

Western allies have held talks with Rome over a major contribution to at least one aspect of a possible mission — helping stabilize Libya through training and advising local forces, as well as securing Tripoli and key pieces of infrastructure. Pinotti said Italy would “not back away” from leading such a mission if the conditions were right. But it remained unclear, she said, what that mission would look like.

“Maybe the only thing that Italy will do in Libya is protect our own embassy,” she said. “Or it may be that we will send our military advisors or trainers to train armed forces. But this all depends on the kind of requests” Italy gets.

She declined to say how many troops Italy would commit. But she added that Rome, under certain circumstances, would also consider joining combat operations against the Islamic State in Libya.

“Should Italy have reason to think that the safety of the country is at risk,” Pinotti said “obviously we are willing to take any necessary step” against the Islamic State.

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Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.