Arab League Endorses No-Flight Zone Over Libya
CAIRO — The Arab League asked the United Nations Security Council on Saturday to impose a no-flight zone over Libya in hopes of halting Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s attacks on his own people, providing the rebels a tincture of hope even as they were driven back from a long stretch of road it had captured in the three-week war.
The extraordinary move by the 22-nation bloc — an extremely rare invitation for Western military forces on Arab territory — increases the pressure on the Obama administration, which has been reluctant to intervene in a war that could turn out to be prolonged and complex.
However, by inviting the West to take such action, it also clears the way for the United States and Europe to press for a strong Security Council resolution and to counter the objections of China and Russia, which traditionally oppose foreign intervention in a country’s internal disputes.
But the United States has not said whether it would pursue a resolution, and it was far from clear that, even if action were forthcoming, it would be enough to stall the march of Colonel Qaddafi’s troops eastward. As the rebels withdrew from the strategic oil town of Ras Lanuf 100 miles east to Brega, and by nightfall on to Ajdabiya, superior government forces pressed their advantage on an insurgency that began as a disparate protest movement and even as it tried to construct a government and an army remained chaotic, splintered and largely leaderless.
The government sweep intensified pleas from the rebels for Western military support. Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, the vice chairman of the rebels’ shadow government, the Libyan National Council, said a no-flight zone would give the rebels a fighting chance against Colonel Qaddafi’s superior armaments.
“We feel we have the right to ask for help,” he said in the rebel’s eastern stronghold of Benghazi, Libya, where a cheer went up when the Arab League vote was announced. “If the international community chooses to play the role of bystander, we will have to defend ourselves.”
Even if the Security Council authorized the measure, American officials have said it would be warranted only if it appeared that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces were acting effectively with warplanes. A no-flight zone, they have said, would have little effect against helicopters or artillery, both of which the Libyan government has used extensively.
In a statement on Saturday that did not mention the no-flight zone, the White House said it welcomed the Arab League decision, “which strengthens the international pressure on Qaddafi and support for the Libyan people.”
The defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, has largely dismissed such a zone as ineffective and ill-advised. Other administration officials have said that the level of violence in Libya would have to approach the scale of that in Rwanda or Bosnia in the 1990s before the United States would engage militarily.
An effective no-flight zone would require a leading Western role. No one else, with the possible exception of Russia, has the level of military sophistication, firepower and surveillance ability it would take to first disable Libyan air defenses, and then enforce the zone.
American officials also said that the Arab League would have to do more than endorse action — it would have to participate in it, too. “That doesn’t mean they have to fly airplanes,” one official said, “but there is much they can do, from providing airfields to gas and maintenance.”
At the Security Council, a diplomat from one member nation said the Arab League decision was “helpful, but there are quite a lot of reservations around the council table still.”
The objections, including some from Russia and China, have centered on questions about whether the need for a no-flight zone has been demonstrated, and whether it has a strong legal basis and clear regional support.
The Arab League action checked one condition off the list, the diplomat said, but the others remain unsettled.
The Europeans have also been divided and have said that Arab League backing was critical to their ultimate decision. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, was expected in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the no-flight decision with the Arab League.
Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, said that a no-flight zone would protect ordinary people. “Our one goal is to protect the civilian population in Libya after what has been reported of attacks and casualties in a very bloody situation,” he said at a news conference after the vote.
Mr. Moussa said that he and other Arab League delegates were shocked by recent statements in Tripoli about the group. He was referring to a derogatory statement about the league made last week by Colonel Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam al-Qaddafi. After dismissing both “Arabs” and the Arab League, he said Libya did not need the league and did not even need Arab workers, but would rely on Bengladeshis and other Asians.
The measure did not pass without tense debate. Syria and Algeria, in particular, argued that foreign intervention would destabilize the region.
Syria’s ambassador, Youssef Ahmed, said Arab states should oppose any step that “violates the sovereignty, independence and unity of Libyan territory.”
Those objections appeared to account for wording in the resolution that the Arab League rejected “foreign intervention,” and Mr. Moussa’s caveat that the action end as soon as the crisis is over.
The League has suspended Libya’s membership and opened contact with the rebels through the Libyan National Council, but it stopped short of recognizing the shadow government as the country’s legitimate authority.
In Libya, the government’s growing confidence was apparent as it took a contingent of foreign journalists to the battlefields of the recently recaptured cities of Bin Jawwad and Ras Lanuf.
On the road, several burned pickups bore witness to the fighting. A machine gun mounted on one was still smoldering.
In Bin Jawwad, the rebels’ furthest foothold — now lost — appeared all but deserted by residents. A small, green government flag decorated a blown-out house amid a sea of burned-out cars. The police station and school were badly damaged by shelling and fire. Walls and ceilings of the many of the low cinderblock houses were caved in. The heaviest damaged faced west, suggesting the blows had come from advancing Qaddafi forces.
Three men in town — virtually the only ones present not in uniform — told the same improbable story: that the damage was done by a small band of bearded, drugged-up Islamic terrorists, many of them foreigners, who had taken the town hostage until it was rescued by Qaddafi forces.
In Ras Lanuf, the journalists were taken to a ransacked hospital where a trail of blood drops led to a puddle in the lobby. A stretcher and hospital supplies had been dumped outside. The soldiers blamed rebels for whatever had happened, which remained unclear. At the giant refinery, a vast fire was burning unchecked at an oil storage facility, sending a thick cloud of black smoke flowing about 50 miles along the Mediterranean coast. Officers in charge of the Qaddafi forces said retreating rebels had set it ablaze, but that could not confirmed. Pilots loyal to Colonel Qaddafi had also bombed the area.
The Qaddafi forces appeared to include armed Bedouin tribesman, some of whom were camped by the road. Some of the soldiers identified themselves as members of the Warfalla, Maghraha and Qadhadhfa tribes — three pillars of support for the Qaddafi government that have provided many of his security forces. They said they had come from Sobha and Surt, bastions of Qaddafi support.
The satellite television channel Al Jazeera reported that one of its cameramen, Ali Hassan al-Jaber, was killed after gunmen fired on a car that he and his colleagues were traveling in. The journalists were attacked on the outskirts of Benghazi, the channel reported.
It was not clear if their attackers knew they were journalists.
The Qaddafi government’s statements about the uprising have often focused on blaming Al Jazeera and its counterpart Al Arabiya for lying about the violence and stirring up trouble. Rowdy crowds of Qaddafi supporters often chant about Al Jazeera’s crimes.
In Brega, the mood was grim as fighters formed a line to carry ammunition out of a makeshift depot along the road, loading boxes onto a flatbed truck headed to Ajdabiya. By nightfall, rebel checkpoints along the road to Ajdabiya were manned by far fewer fighters than in recent days.
In Benghazi, Omar al-Hariri, the rebel defense minister, insisted the rebels would be able to defend the city “with weapons and also with our bodies.” A former army captain who was jailed by Colonel Qaddafi, Mr. Hariri said that the opposition was taking steps to better organize their youthful volunteers into “a military force.”
“We will fight, and we are powerful,” he said. “We know how to win, with God’s will.”