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Allies split on Libya goals and exit strategy

world Updated: Mar 26, 2011 00:28 IST
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Having largely succeeded in stopping a rout of Libya's rebels, the inchoate coalition attacking Muammar Gaddafi's forces remains divided over the ultimate goal - and exit strategy - of what officials acknowledged Thursday would be a military campaign that could last for weeks.

The United States has all but called for Gaddafi's overthrow from within - with American commanders on Thursday openly calling on the Libyan military to stop following orders - even as administration officials insist that is not the explicit objective of the bombing, and that their immediate goal is more narrowly defined.

France has gone further, recognising the Libyan rebels as the country's legitimate representatives, but other allies, have balked. That has complicated the planning and execution of the military campaign and left its objective ill defined for now.

Only on Thursday, the sixth day of air and missile strikes, did the allies reach an agreement to give command of the no-fly operation to NATO after days of public quarrelling that exposed the divisions among the alliance's members.

"From the start, President Obama, has stated that the role of the US military would be limited in time and scope," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday evening in announcing the plan.

But even that agreement - brokered by Clinton and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Turkey - frayed almost immediately over how far the military campaign should go in trying to erode the remaining pillars of Gaddafi's power by striking his forces on the ground and those devoted to protecting him. It was salvaged, one diplomat said, only by papering over the differences concerning the crucial question of who actually controls military strikes on Libya's ground forces.

"There were differences in the scope of what NATO would do and what would remain with the national militaries," a senior administration official said, expressing hope that the agreement on NATO command would be a step toward resolving them.

The questions swirling around the operation's command mirrored the larger strategic divisions over how exactly the coalition will bring it to an end - or even what the end might look like, and whether it might even conceivably include a Libya with Gaddafi remaining in some capacity. While few countries have openly sided with the Libyan leader, officials said on Thursday that most of the allies expected that the use of military force would lead to talks between the government and the rebels.

"I don't think anyone is ruling out some kind of negotiated settlement," the official said. Gaddafi has responded defiantly, making the likelihood of his negotiated departure seem exceedingly remote.