UPDATE 4-Obama under pressure to intervene in Libya
* Kerry, Republicans say sanctions should be considered
* McCain, Lieberman support Libya no-fly zone
* U.S. military action unlikely - analyst
* Violence pushes oil to near 2-1/2-year high
* U.S. still trying to airlift diplomatic staff, families (Adds new details throughout)
WASHINGTON, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Pressure mounted on the White House on Tuesday to intervene to stop Muammar Gaddafi's bloody crackdown on democracy protests as a lawmaker close to President Barack Obama urged oil firms to halt work in Libya.
The United States faced calls to impose sanctions but also to take direct action such as bombing Libyan airfields and imposing no-fly zones -- military steps that most analysts consider unlikely. Some critics questioned Obama's silence on the violence in which hundreds of Libyans have died.
U.S. officials called for an end to the violence but seemed to rule out any unilateral action, stressing the United States was working with other countries on a way forward.
Senator John Kerry, the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the White House to consider reimposing tough sanctions on Libya.
"World leaders must together put Colonel Gaddafi on notice that his cowardly actions will have consequences," Kerry said.
The White House said it was studying Kerry's proposal to reimpose sanctions that were lifted by the Bush administration but, for now, was focused on ending the bloodshed, which sent U.S. oil prices to near 2-1/2-year highs. [ID:nN2297278]
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Kerry's Republican counterpart in the House of Representatives, said the United States and others "should impose economic sanctions, including freezing assets of the regime and imposing a ban on travel."
Obama did not mention Libya when he spoke about small business at a university in Ohio -- in contrast to his German counterpart Angela Merkel, who said she would back sanctions if Gaddafi did not halt the violence.
Obama's administration has been struggling to keep up with the wave of popular uprisings unfolding across the Middle East and North Africa. Each country has presented its own challenges for Washington, which has seen its decades-old Middle East policy upended in a matter of weeks.
Obama spoke out about violence against protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain but some analysts saw his silence on Libya as a deliberate tactic.
"Getting into a spitting match with Gaddafi would not be such a smart idea," said Daniel Serwer of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "This guy obviously enjoys the attention so ignoring him may have some virtue."
Take a Look-Unrest in N.Africa, Mideast [ID:nLDE71F0BK]
Factbox-U.S. oil firms' interests in Libya[ID:nN22292738]
Factbox-U.S.-Libya trade ties at risk [ID:nN22293286]
Breakingviews-Libya risks for oil majors [ID:nLDE71L1XZ]
U.S. options to influence events in Libya are limited, unlike in Egypt and Bahrain where Washington was able to bring pressure to bear as a long-time ally and benefactor. U.S. foreign aid to Libya was less than $1 million in 2010.
Military action does not appear to be on the table, although the United States has not shied from the use of force against Gaddafi in the past. It bombed Tripoli and Libya's second city, Benghazi, in 1986 in retaliation for an attack on a West Berlin disco used by U.S. military personnel.
"There is absolutely no talk of military intervention," said Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "We don't know the opposition and it is not clear that they would be on our side."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated her call to stop the bloodshed. Asked whether Washington was prepared to go beyond condemnation, Clinton said officials were working with the international community to decide on "appropriate" action.
Clinton hinted that the cautious response so far might be linked to concerns about the safety of U.S. citizens in Libya.
The State Department said it had been unable to move any of its diplomats and embassy family members out of Libya. Some 35 staffers and their families were expected to leave within days, spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
Anti-Gaddafi protesters gathered outside the White House chanting "White House where are you? Libya now needs you."
Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman backed the idea of a no-fly zone as one of the measures that could be taken by the United States, the European Union and the African Union.
U.S. COMPANIES IN LIBYA
Kerry said, beyond possible U.S. sanctions, that energy companies should take action as well.
"All American and international oil companies should immediately cease operations in Libya until violence against civilians ceases," he said in a statement.
Italy's Eni (ENI.MI) said it halted output in Libya, which is Italy's biggest oil supplier. A number of companies including BP (BP.L), Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) and Suncor Energy Inc (SU.TO) said they were pulling out staff but had not confirmed any impact on production. [ID:nLDE71L11T]
Among U.S. companies, Marathon Oil (MRO.N) and Occidental Petroleum (OXY.N) said production in Libya continued.
After an estrangement of decades, largely because of Libya's support for militants, the United States gradually began to improve ties following Gaddafi's decision in late 2003 to give up Libya's weapons of mass destruction programs.
U.S. economic sanctions were progressively removed after Libya agreed to accept civil responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988. (Additional reporting by David Morgan, Susan Cornwell, Andrew Quinn and Doug Palmer and Paul Eckert in Washington and Braden Reddall in San Francisco; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Christopher Wilson)
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