The revolt against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi widened significantly just over four weeks ago when NATO, including the United States, launched airstrikes against government ground forces that were quickly rolling over the rebels.
The rebels’ headquarters city of Benghazi is currently safe and secure, but several rebel-held towns farther west are being pounded unmercifully by government rocket and artillery fire and, it is said, cluster bombs at great cost to the civilian populations.
Seeking to up the pressure on Gadhafi’s inner circle, the United Nations’ top human-rights official, Navi Pillay, suggested that top government officials could be hauled before the International Criminal Court to face war-crimes trials for the indiscriminate shelling.
There are signs the government’s resolve may be weakening. In an interview with the Western press, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi has proposed a cease-fire with free U.N.-supervised elections at the end of six months.
Previous attempts at cease-fires have broken down over the rebels’ insistence — and NATO’s — that as part of any agreement Gadhafi had to go. Now, however, al-Obeidi says that whether Gadhafi stays or goes is up for discussion: “All options will be on the table.”
Meanwhile, frustrated by the military and political stalemates, the key NATO powers are widening the war again, slightly but significantly. Britain has sent 20 senior military officers to advise the rebels. Italy is sending 10 and France the same. Moreover, the French have pledged to step up the tempo of airstrikes.
The expanded role is being taken under the U.N. resolution that authorizes all necessary measures to protect the civilian population and civilian areas. A French diplomat insisted to the Associated Press that advisers sent by his country are not teaching weapons skills but logistics and organization, although from a military standpoint it’s hard to see how these skills are unrelated.
The Obama administration has been adamant that U.S. combat troops will not set foot in Libya, but the position on U.S. advisers is less clear. It is believed that U.S. covert operatives are already there. And of course we have now sent our military’s deadly unmanned drones into the fray.
The administration did say it would provide the rebels with$25 million in “nonlethal” assistance — radios, medical supplies, uniforms, protective gear and the like. Meanwhile, further provision of vehicles, weapons and ammunition is under discussion.
The rebels have been equally adamant that they don’t want foreign ground troops helping them, but rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheirani told AP that foreign troops to escort and protect humanitarian aid “might be acceptable.”
And thus do wars widen.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.