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WASHINGTON (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 administration faced calls for military actions ranging from bombing Libyan airfields and imposing no-fly-zones, and criticism of Obama's silence on the violence in which hundreds have died.
Senator John Kerry, the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on the Obama administration 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.
Kerry's outspoken Republican counterpart in the House of Representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said the United States and other nations should impose economic sanctions, including freezing assets and issuing a travel ban on senior Libyan government officials and their families.
The Washington Post said in an editorial the United States needed to take more forceful action against Libya, including a public call for a new government. Libya has been a U.S. adversary for most of Gaddafi's 41-year rule.
But U.S. options to influence events in Libya are limited, unlike in Egypt and Bahrain where Washington was able to bring pressure to bear on long-time allies to soften their response to popular uprisings.
Asked whether the United States was prepared to go beyond condemnation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said officials were working with the international community to decide on "appropriate" action.
Clinton hinted that Washington's cautious response so far might be linked to concerns about the safety of U.S. citizens in Libya. "The safety and wellbeing of Americans has to be our highest priority." she said.
The U.S. State Department earlier said it had been unable to move any of its nonessential diplomats and embassy family members out of Libya. Spokesman P.J. Crowley said 35 employees and their families were expected to leave within days.
Dozens of anti-Gaddafi protesters gathered outside the White House chanting "White House where are you? Libya now needs you."
American foreign aid to Libya was less than $1 million in 2010, a congressional staffer said, although trade has flourished since Washington began to lift sanctions in 2004. Last year, U.S. exports to Libya were $665 million, while imports were $2.12 billion.
The Obama 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 particular challenges for Washington, which has seen its decades-old Middle East policy upended in a matter of weeks.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington condemned the "appalling violence", which drove U.S. oil prices to their highest level in 2-1/2 years on Tuesday.
Kerry acknowledged that U.S. options in Libya were limited but said the Obama administration should consider reimposing sanctions. 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 said Tuesday it had halted output in Libya, which is Italy's biggest oil supplier. The unrest has also prompted BASF unit Wintershall to wind down Libyan oil production and a number of firms including BP and Royal Dutch Shell to pull out international staff.
U.S. firms ConocoPhilllips, Marathon Oil and Hess are part of a consortium that owns just over 40 percent of a joint venture with Libyan National Oil Corp that produces about 350,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day from the Waha concession.
Occidental Petroleum was the first U.S. firm to restart oil production in Libya after sanctions were lifted, returning to fields it had worked nearly two decades earlier.
It would take time for any new sanctions to have any effect on Libya, whose oil exports give it a ready source of hard currency. The White House said it was studying Kerry's proposal but, for now, it was focused on ending the bloodshed.
"The U.S. has relatively little leverage in Libya. There are certainly U.S. interests but they are more global interests -- and that is mostly oil," said Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
Military action seems unlikely given the fluid situation in the country, although the United States has not shied from the use of force against Gaddafi in the past.
The United States bombed Tripoli and its second city Benghazi in 1986 in retaliation for the bombing of a West Berlin disco used by U.S. military personnel. Gaddafi's adopted baby daughter was among more than 40 Libyans killed.
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, Arshad Mohammed, Andrew Quinn and Doug Palmer; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Doina Chiacu