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Divided NATO tries again to define Libya role

NATO tried again on Tuesday to resolve a fractious debate on who should command the military campaign in Libya once the United States steps back from leading the operation.

world Updated: Mar 22, 2011 22:48 IST

NATO tried again on Tuesday to resolve a fractious debate on who should command the military campaign in Libya once the United States steps back from leading the operation.

President Barack Obama, seeking to avoid getting bogged down in a war in another Muslim country, said on Monday Washington would cede control of operations against Muammar Gaddafi's forces within days and NATO would have a coordinating role.

But a heated meeting of NATO ambassadors on Monday failed to resolve whether the 28-nation alliance should run the operation to enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone, diplomats said. The NATO council was meeting again on Tuesday to resume debate.

France, which launched the initial air strikes on Libya on Saturday, has argued against giving the U.S.-led NATO political control over an operation in an Arab country, while Turkey has called for limits to any alliance involvement.

Some allies were also now questioning whether a no-fly zone was necessary, given the damage already done by air strikes to Gaddafi's military capabilities, a NATO diplomat said.

"Yesterday's meeting became a little bit emotional," the envoy said, adding that France had argued that the coalition led by France, Britain and the United States should retain political control of the mission, with NATO providing operational support, including command-and-control capabilities.

"Others are saying NATO should have command or no role at all and that it doesn't make sense for NATO to play a subsidiary role," the diplomat said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu suggested that air strikes launched after a meeting in Paris hosted by France
on Saturday had gone beyond what had been sanctioned by a U.N. Security Council resolution. [ID:LDE72L0JR]

"There are U.N. decisions and these decisions clearly have a defined framework. A NATO operation which goes outside this framework cannot be legitimised," he told news channel CNN Turk.

Italian warning on bases
Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini reiterated a warning that Italy would take back control of airbases it has authorised for use by allies for operations over Libya unless a NATO coordination structure was agreed.

US defence secretary Robert Gates has said Britain or France could take charge of the air operation, or NATO could lead it, if sensitivities in the Arab League over working under NATO leadership were assuaged.

However, some analysts and NATO officials question whether France or Britain would be capable of coordinating a complex multinational air mission.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday that NATO should take charge of a no-fly zone, given its "tried and tested machinery in command and control".

In arguing against a prominent NATO role, France has cited the alliance's poor reputation in the Arab world as a result of the war in Afghanistan and the perception that NATO is dominated by the United States.

Senior French analyst Francois Heisbourg said the best outcome would be to have NATO handle military coordination but hand political decisions to an ad hoc council of states participating in the coalition, including Arab countries.

Italy should be given an equal role with France and Britain because of its geographical location, interests in Libya and the key role of its air bases, he said.

"If Turkey sticks to its line, that would rule out a NATO role either politically and militarily," Heisbourg told Reuters. "If it lifts its objection, France would favour having NATO do the operational military coordination but not the political conduct of operations."

The nations leading the air campaign are all prominent NATO states, but NATO's operational role has so far been limited to expanded air surveillance.

Italian officials have described the current three-way command structure involving France, Britain and the United States and the resulting bombing campaign as "anarchic".

Italy's position reflects evident Italian annoyance with the attitude of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who led the diplomatic drive for the Security Council resolution.

Gianpiero Cantoni, head of the Italian Senate's defence affairs committee, was quoted in the Corriere della Sera daily as saying that French policy appeared to be motivated by a desire to secure oil contracts with a future Libyan government, while Italy would have to face a potential flood of refugees.

On Monday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the mission should be limited to creating a no-fly zone and that Italian planes taking part would not open fire.