WASHINGTON — As Western powers and Arab allies prepared to meet Saturday for an emergency summit on Libya, President Barack Obama pledged to support a United Nations-backed military campaign against Col. Moammar Gadhafi but said that he wouldn't send troops to Libyan soil or take over the operation.
Obama's comments, a day after the U.N. Security Council authorized Great Britain and France to launch airstrikes to protect civilians and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, signaled a circumscribed U.S. role in the troubled North African nation and came after a meeting with members of Congress, some of whom have voiced reservations about U.S. involvement.
In Libya, Gadhafi announced a cease-fire, but there were unconfirmed reports that his soldiers were moving toward Benghazi, a Mediterranean city of some 1 million people that's the capital of the rebel-controlled eastern portion of the country. Witnesses told the Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera that they'd heard a loud blast and anti-aircraft fire, suggesting a bombing attack by Gadhafi aircraft.
People reached by phone in Benghazi said that the city's residents remained defiant, but there were reports of panic in other parts of the east as residents waited for what they expected to be attacks by Gadhafi loyalists.
Never miss a local story.
In Libya's west, Al Jazeera reported that Gadhafi forces were using tanks and artillery to shell Misrata, a city that has been in rebel hands for the past month.
With his administration and Congress divided over the wisdom of intervening, Obama said the U.S. military would play only a supporting part in the coalition, which also includes at least three Arab nations: Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
"American leadership is essential but that does not mean acting alone," Obama said. "It means shaping the conditions for the international community to act together."
The U.S. would provide "unique capabilities" to enable European partners to enforce no-fly zone, Obama said, and experts predicted that could include providing command and control, intelligence, surveillance and search-and-rescue functions. The military action could take place under NATO command or be led by France or Britain, both of which have warplanes and naval ships in the Mediterranean region and bases nearby.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Typhoon and Tornado fighter jets would be dispatched to the Mediterranean, where they'd be in a position to stop Gadhafi's forces from launching airstrikes on Benghazi. French leaders were more tight-lipped about their plans, but the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier is floating in the Mediterranean with a fleet of 40 combat aircraft.
Obama said that Gadhafi's only chance to head off international use of force is to implement an immediate cease-fire; stop troops from advancing on Benghazi and other rebel-held cities; restore water, electricity and gas supplies that have been cut off; and allow humanitarian aid.
Obama said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Paris to participate in the summit on Saturday and Defense Secretary Robert Gates would coordinate planning with international partners. Gates has been a skeptic of military intervention and has questioned whether imposing a no-fly zone would be "wise."
Even without U.S. leadership, however, experts said that France and Britain each are capable of enforcing a no-fly zone, which would likely begin by destroying Libya's arsenal of more than 420 surface-to-air missiles — many of which date to the early Cold War. The most worrisome of these to U.S. and European officials are four sites with SA-5 missiles, more modern, longer-range weapons that could reach over the Mediterranean, according to John Pike, the president of Globalsecurity.org, a defense research center.
Pike said that the SA-5 sites are likely at an airbase near Tripoli, which could be one of the earliest targets of international airstrikes. Libya has at least six other major airbases, but four are in the eastern half of the country in predominantly rebel-held territory. The other two are in the remote southern desert.
"I see no reason the French and British couldn't take the lead" in enforcing a no-fly zone, Pike said.
Pike and others warned, however, that launching attacks on targets in Tripoli could lead to civilian deaths.
The vague language of the U.N. resolution authorizes "all necessary measures . . . to protect civilians," short of an occupying force, and France and Britain — the most passionate advocates of military force — haven't specified whether they'll seek to cripple Gadhafi's military.
"It depends what the political goal is, and that's not been clearly defined. If they decide to destroy the entirety of the Libyan military, there's plenty of targets around Tripoli, but given the possibility of civilian casualties, that's not high on the list of priorities," said Christian Le Miere, a military expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
"We can't rule anything out at the moment. . . . But the ceasefire, if it's genuine and holds, does diminish the support for a very large and very immediate aerial campaign against military assets in Libya."
Earlier this month, NATO said it had begun to conduct 24-hour aerial surveillance over Libya in preparation for possible military operations.
"The United States has been engaged for a couple of weeks . . . to maximize the amount of information that we'll have available to NATO pilots that will be involved, and those of other cooperating states," said David Mack, a former U.S. diplomat in the region who's now a scholar with the Middle East Institute, a research center.
Mack said that a wider U.S. role wasn't necessary after the U.N. Security Council authorized the military mission on a 10-0 vote, with five nations abstaining — China, Russia, Germany, India and Brazil.
The role of Arab states — the 22-member Arab League has endorsed the no-fly zone — is yet to be determined.
"We now have the right mix of ingredients: Arab leadership and partnership; a solid, strong U.N. resolution; the participation of some key NATO allies; the availability of bases close to Libya," Mack said.
Some lawmakers, however, expressed concern about U.S. involvement and urged Obama to call Congress back from recess to seek its approval before committing American forces to the operation.
"As Secretary Gates and others have noted, military action is tantamount to an act of war, which would require substantial resources over a long period of time," said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., the chairman of the House of Representatives Democratic Caucus. "Given our current fiscal constraints, and our military's current responsibilities, this truly deserves a robust debate before we commit our young men and women in uniform."
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said earlier this week that the administration should seek a declaration of war "that would allow for a full congressional debate on the issue" and ask Arab League governments and other advocates of a no-fly zone to pay for the operation.
"We need a broader public discussion about the goals and limits of the U.S. role in the Middle East, especially as it pertains to potential military intervention," Lugar said.
Obama said he doesn't take intervention lightly, but that the humanitarian threat and implications for all of the North African and the Gulf states now facing civil unrest are too great.
"Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe Gadhafi would commit atrocities against his people," he said. "Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more news from the Middle East, visit McClatchy's Middle East page.