WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States, in a sharp shift in tone, pushed the United Nations on Thursday to authorize a “no-fly” zone and air strikes to aid Libyan rebels, but immediate U.S. action was not expected.
A draft U.N. Security Council resolution, obtained by Reuters, would authorize a no-fly zone over Libya and allow Arab states and others in cooperation with the United Nations to protect Libyan civilians, including the rebel-held city of Benghazi.
If adopted, the resolution would allow “all necessary measures” to be taken “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in (Libya), including Benghazi, while excluding an occupation force.”
While French diplomatic sources said military action, if authorized, could come within hours, and could include France, Britain and possibly the United States and one or more Arab states, a U.S. military official said no immediate U.S. action was expected following the vote.
The shift toward a tougher U.S. stance in favor of military action comes after an extended internal debate within the Obama administration over how to stop Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi routing rebels fighting to end his four-decade rule.
The Libyan opposition has appealed for immediate assistance to prevent Benghazi from falling to forces loyal to Gaddafi. The question now facing President Barack Obama and other world leaders is whether the action they are planning is too little, too late.
Obama instructed his top aides to pursue a U.N. resolution on a variety of measures that would include and go beyond a no-fly zone, U.S. officials said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney disputed any suggestion the United States had moved too slowly to help the rebels. Washington and its allies were acting with great urgency to protect Libyan citizens and “move toward a situation where Gaddafi is no longer in power,” he insisted.
The Pentagon voiced concerns about a U.S. military engagement in Libya, echoing recent comments from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
“I think you could safely say there would be a concern about conducting military operations inside Libya,” said Colonel David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.
General Norton Schwartz, chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force, said it was “overly optimistic” to say a no-fly zone could be set up in a few days.
“I think it would take upwards of a week,” he told a Senate hearing.
He also said there might be limited resources available for the mission with the U.S. military already committed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently in Japan.
Republican Senator Richard Lugar also had doubts that U.S. interests would be served by imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, given its costs, the risk of escalation, the uncertain reception by Arabs, and the strains on the U.S. military.
U.S. officials said the United States had concluded a no-fly zone should be adopted and that other measures that go well beyond a no-fly zone, should be taken, including air strikes against Libyan tanks and artillery.
The United States is also seeking U.N. authorization for other steps, including diverting frozen Gaddafi assets to the rebels and tightening a Libyan arms embargo.
NO “BOOTS ON THE GROUND”
The United States supports international measures in Libya that are “short of boots on the ground,” Undersecretary of State William Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He said Washington was concerned Gaddafi could “return to terrorism and violent extremism” and create turmoil in the Middle East.
A senior U.S. official said any military plan must have participation by Arab League nations, not just verbal backing.
“They have to do more than just support it,” a senior official said.
Obama has been under pressure from Britain and France to join together in taking tough action against Gaddafi before the moment to do so slips away.
The former Libyan ambassador to the United States, Ali Aujali, who backs the rebels, appealed for immediate help in a CNN interview.
“President Obama, please, I am asking you for the second or third time, you know Gaddafi, you know what he will do,” he said.
Additional reporting by Missy Ryan, Caren Bohan, Jackie Frank and Andrew Quinn in Washington and Arshad Mohammed in Tunis; Editing by Eric Beech and Peter Cooney