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HonestChieffan
03-20-2011, 09:28 PM
Gaddafi may become target of air strikes, Liam Fox admits
Coalition forces accused of mission creep and disproportionate action against Tripoli


Patrick Wintour and Ewen MacAskill
guardian.co.uk,

America, France and Britain the leaders of the coalition's air attacks on Libya were struggling to maintain international support for their actions, as they faced stinging criticism about mission creep from the leader of the Arab League, as well as from China and Russia.

Critics claimed that the coalition of the willing may have been acting disproportionately and had come perilously close to making Gaddafi's departure an explicit goal of UN policy.

Russia, which abstained on the UN vote last week, called for "an end to indiscriminate force".

Despite denials from coalition forces, Alexander Lukashevich, Russia's foreign ministry spokesman, said that the coalition had hit non-military targets.

He suggested that 48 civilians had been killed. "We believe a mandate given by the UN security council resolution a controversial move in itself should not be used to achieve goals outside its provisions, which only see measures necessary to protect civilian population," he said.

The Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, also startled western governments when he denounced the air attacks only a week after the league had called for creation of a no-fly zone.

Moussa, who is a candidate for the Egyptian presidency, said: "What has happened in Libya differs from the goal of imposing a no-fly zone and what we want is the protection of civilians and not bombing other civilians."

The Foreign Office later said Moussa claimed he had been misquoted, or had put his criticism more strongly in Arabic than in English. "We will continue to work with our Arab partners to enforce the resolution for the good of the Libyan people," the FO said.

The Arab League had, though, been called to an emergency session to discuss the scale of the attacks.

The British defence secretary, Liam Fox, said the scale was in line with UN resolutions that had been "essential in terms of the Gaddafi regime's ability to prosecute attacks on their own people". He also said it was possible that Gaddafi himself could become a target of air attacks if the safety of civilians could be guaranteed.

Ahead of a Commons debate and vote tomorrow, leading figures in David Cameron's cabinet were under pressure to clarify whether the explicit purpose of the attacks was to render Gaddafi's regime so powerless that it collapses.

Speaking on the Politics Show, Fox said: "Mission accomplished would mean the Libyan people free to control their own destiny. This is very clear the international community wants his regime to end and wants the Libyan people to control for themselves their own country."

He then added: "Regime change is not an objective, but it may come about as a result of what is happening amongst the people of Libya."

He said: "When the dynamic shifts and the equilibrium shifts, we will get a better idea just how much support the Gaddafi regime has and how much the people of Libya genuinely long to be able to control their own country.

"If Colonel Gaddafi went, not every eye would be wet."

Fox said it was possible that allied forces might treat Gaddafi himself as a legitimate target for air strikes.

"There is a difference between someone being a legitimate target and whether we go ahead and target him," he said. "You would have to take into account what would happen to civilians in the area, what might happen in terms of collateral damage. We don't simply with a gung-ho attitude start firing off missiles."

One UK defence source said: "If we are seeking to destroy a military resource and he [Gaddafi] is caught in the process, that will not be our doing."

However the US rejected the idea that Gaddafi is a target. "We are not going after Gaddafi," US Navy vice-admiral Bill Gortney, told a press conference at the Pentagon.

Fox also made it clear that the allied attacks would extend in the coming days from Gaddafi's air defence systems to his artillery.

Britain has ruled out the use of ground forces, but some of the more hawkish cabinet members such as the chancellor, George Osborne, only said ground forces were "ruled out for the moment".

In the Commons debate Labour will call for an explicit guarantee that British ground troops will not be involved.

But in a boost to the coalition, there were signs that some of the much-trailed practical Arab involvement in the air strikes had finally materialised after Qatar last night sent four planes to work alongside the French in the second round of attacks designed to set up a no fly zone across Libya.

Britain is hopeful of further input from the United Arab Emirates, following calls by Fox. Arab political support, and military participation is vital to reduce the credibility of Gaddafi's claims that this is a western act of aggression against a Muslim country.

In an effort to reassure Arab opinion, Fox stressed plans to hand some of the co-ordination of the operation to Nato would allow a wider group of participants. But the attacks were under UN auspices.

In the US, the Obama administration was more restrained in its language. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, insisted the campaign was only a limited, humanitarian operation, not a war, and was not aimed at regime change, as both Cameron and Sarkozy have suggested.

"The goals of this campaign are limited. It is not about seeing him [Gaddafi] go. It is about supporting the UN resolution."

Asked if the mission could be accomplished with Gaddafi still in power, Mullen replied: "This is one outcome."

The Pentagon has been reluctant to become engaged in a third war against a Muslim country in the space of a decade and pressed Barack Obama on the dangers of mission creep.

Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate armed services committee, said that Obama had given them assurances on that and the Pentagon was satisfied.

Mullen and other US commanders said that although the US had taken the lead in the first phase, there would be hand-over to the French and British, and the US would take a back-seat role, restricted to tasks to which it was uniquely qualified, such as jamming Gaddafi's communications and providing refuelling of planes in the air.

John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, echoed Mullen over the mission goals, saying it was not a war. "This operation is not specifically geared to get rid of Gaddafi," he said.

The Republican senator Lindsey Graham, speaking on Fox News Sunday, said he was troubled by Obama's lack of enthusiasm, after the president went ahead with a trip to Latin America.

"I'm very worried that we're taking a back seat rather than a leadership role," Graham said.