NATO still split on taking over Libya operation

Filed on March 24, 2011

BRUSSELS - NATO failed again to agree on Wednesday on taking over command of military operations against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya from the United States, chiefly due to Turkish reservations.

After ambassadors of the 28-nation NATO alliance ended a third day of wrangling in Brussels without a deal, one senior NATO diplomat said: “No decision on anything.” The United States has said it plans to turn over command within days.

Turkey, a Muslim ally, said it did not want NATO to take responsibility for offensive operations that could cause civilian casualties or be in charge of enforcing a UN-mandated no-fly zone while coalition aircraft are simultaneously bombing Libyan forces.

“It would be impossible for us to share responsibility in an operation that some authorities have described as a ‘crusade,’” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Ankara.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has used that term, as has Gaddafi.

“It’s important that the effort be gathered under one umbrella, and we will continue to negotiate until we achieve this. No one should make this out as Turkey is trying to block efforts, this is wrong,” Davutoglu said.

A Turkish diplomat said talks would continue on Thursday.

President Barack Obama, who faces growing criticism at home over US involvement in the mission and questions over its aims, still plans to hand over command of the operation within days, a senior aide told reporters aboard Air Force One.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, traveling in Egypt, said Obama does not want the United States to keep command of the operation, which began last Saturday, for “more than a week or so.”

‘The final issues’

The White House said it sees NATO playing a key role after the United States transfers control of the mission. Allies are “working through the final issues on command and control,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama, told reporters.

One NATO source said Turkey wants Western coalition countries to finish their air strikes before NATO takes over command, so the alliance is not blamed for any accidents.

But since the air raids are reported to have already destroyed Gaddafi’s air force, that could raise questions about the purpose of continuing a no-fly zone if coalition aircraft are blocked from attacking Libyan government ground forces.

Another source said the United States had wanted to transfer command to the alliance on Saturday, a week after the start of operations, but that is likely to slip since NATO would need 72 hours to put the decision into practice.

Obama flew home from a five-day trip to Latin America to face growing discontent among US lawmakers worried about the United States getting bogged down in another Muslim country in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The top Republican in Congress, Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, ratcheted up his criticism of Obama’s handling of the operation. Boehner told the Democratic president in a letter he is troubled that the US military has been committed to Libya without a clearly defined mission.

Boehner, briefed by Obama before the air strikes began, asked Obama how much the operation will cost, how long the US military will be involved after control of the mission is handed over, and how long the no-fly zone will be enforced.

“Because of the conflicting messages from the (Obama) administration and our coalition partners, there is a lack of clarity over the objectives of this mission, what our national security interests are, and how it fits into our overarching policy for the Middle East,” Boehner said.

Political dressing

Washington, London and Paris agreed on Tuesday that the alliance should play a key operational role, but the assent of all 28 NATO states is needed and they have also been split over whether NATO should exercise political control.

“It’s all about how you dress this up politically,” a NATO source familiar with the negotiations said.

Turkey says the air campaign has already gone beyond the scope of last week’s UN Security Council resolution.

The United States said it is aware of the meeting but that it is not clear yet whether Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would attend.

France wants an ad hoc steering group of coalition members, including the Arab League, to exercise political control.

One possible model would be the NATO-led International Peace Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, in which non-NATO participants get a seat in the political steering group.

The United States, Britain, Italy and Norway all want NATO’s council of ambassadors in charge of policy.

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