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Nato under strain as Libya holds out

world Updated: Jun 27, 2011 00:26 IST

As Nato bombs began to rain on Libya in March, US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders assured their war-weary publics that the campaign to protect civilians from Muammar Gaddafi's crackdown would be over within weeks.

Now the coalition's springtime incursion has stretched to summer and Gaddafi's resilience has startled the leaders who committed to the operation. Calls are growing to end it even as Nato pleads for more time. As the campaign enters its fourth month, Nato officials insist they are succeeding and that Gaddafi will become the Arab Spring's third casualty. But that will happen, they say, only in a slow and steady advance on the capital as his troops run out of supplies, not in a flash of pyrotechnics that puts him out of power in an instant.

"The noose is tightening around him, and there's very few places for him to go," General Charles Bouchard, the Canadian head of the operations, said on Saturday in an interview at his Naples headquarters. But, he added, "you don't stay in power for 41 years and expect that he's going to leave at the first sign of stresses." Indications of a fraying commitment to the mission were evident in a House vote on Friday in which an unusual coalition of antiwar Democrats and tea party Republicans joined to pass a measure to reject Obama's use of the US military, even as they declined to strip part of its funding. In UK, a top commander said last week that if the campaign goes on past September, his forces could crack under the strain. On Wednesday, Italy's foreign minister called for an immediate end to hostilities.

Nato has flown more than 4,700 strike sorties, pummeling bunkers, depots and vehicles and reducing much of Gaddafi's army to ruins. It watches his military movements with drones that can remain in the sky for days.

Still, Gaddafi holds on, continuing to cause casualties in the rebel-held city of Misrata, in the mountain towns south of Tripoli and along the front line in the east.

Bouchard said that Nato's extreme caution about civilian deaths - in one case scuttling days of planning because a soccer game was being played next to a target - has slowed the campaign. The upshot, he said, is that there has been only one instance in which Nato thinks it may have caused civilian casualties, and few opportunities for the Libyan government to present evidence of more.

Both sides say that credible allegations of civilian deaths probably are the best weapon Libya can use against Nato. The nervousness was palpable at Nato's operational headquarters before major strikes on Brega, a now-depopulated city.

Measures that could speed Gaddafi's departure, like cutting overland fuel lines to Tripoli, aren't being carried out because the UN mandate does not allow targeting civilian infrastructure.

(In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post)