NATO divided on end to Libya air war

Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (2nd L) with NATO defense ministers, October 5, 2011

From David S. Cloud and Patrick J. McDonnell, the Los Angeles Times:  Members of the NATO military alliance parted company Wednesday over how quickly to halt the six-month bombing campaign in Libya, and the dangers of doing so if fighters loyal to Moammar Kadafi, the country’s deposed strongman, are still engaged in armed resistance.

Western and NATO officials said privately that the decision on when to cease the air war has become a source of friction in the alliance even as Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters that "we are close to completing our mission."

Rasmussen, who met with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and other defense chiefs at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels, said that ending the air war, which began March 19, "is not dependent" on capturing Kadafi. "He’s not the target of our operations."

Other officials cautioned, however, that halting the air combat missions too soon — including the nonstop patrols by armed U.S. drone and other surveillance aircraft — may encourage Kadafi loyalists still battling in Surt and other towns to continue resisting or to launch a broader insurgency once the warplanes are grounded.

"There are some that feel that we have done about all we can do," said a senior NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There are others who think [ending] the operation would be a signal to the remnants of the [Kadafi] regime that the [new Libyan leadership] is on its own now, and they should fight back."

The dispute centers on whether to suspend the bombing while fierce fighting still is underway for control of Surt, Kadafi’s hometown. Regime loyalists are holding out in the coastal city, and NATO warplanes have been hitting ground positions.

"Some people believe that it’s time now" to cease operations, said a Western official. Other allies believe that NATO should wait until Surt falls or until the last Kadafi forces are defeated.

U.S. officials are pushing to continue the air campaign at least until Surt falls, the Western official said. Panetta, attending his first NATO meeting since taking office, told reporters that the Libya operation was nearing a "successful" end, but he did not specify an exact time. . . .

Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s top commander, has privately discussed with officials from alliance countries the options for halting the bombing campaign, but he did not lay them out at Wednesday’s closed-door meeting of defense ministers, a NATO officer said.

Officials from the Transitional National Council, the ruling body in post-Kadafi Libya, also met with NATO officials in Brussels to consider a timetable for halting the air campaign.  (photo: Reuters)

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