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World

US and allies consider military options on Libya

While humanitarian aid and the protection of civilians remain the priorities of the international community, the US and its allies say that military action against Libya's President Muammar Gadhafi remains an option.

Libyan soldiers

Gadhafi deploys troops in the west as his power begins to slip

While it is too early to gauge what effect UN and European Union sanctions on Libya will have on the determination of Gadhafi to stay in power, the measures taken by the international community over the last few days have initially failed to rein in the Libyan dictator who deployed his forces to a western border area on Tuesday in defiance of the growing pressure.

As the United States began moving warships from its Italy-based Sixth Fleet to the waters off North Africa, Gadhafi was deploying troops and military vehicles along the remote Dehiba border crossing with Tunisia and in the nearby town of Nalut which fell to opposition forces Sunday in an effort to prevent anti-regime forces taking further control of the region.

With the Libyan dictator appearing increasingly cut off from most of his country - and in turn, from the reality of the situation unfolding around his power base in Tripoli - concerns begin to grow that an already bloody uprising could turn even bloodier as Gadhafi prepares to fight to the death.

Options running out

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi

Gadhafi says he would rather die a martyr than stand down

Hundreds if not thousands of protestors have lost their lives in Libya's uprising so far and despite numerous military defections by personnel who have refused to carry out his orders to attack civilians, Gadhafi appears to have a core of loyalists ready to lay down their lives for their leader. The dilemma now facing the international community is how long it will allow the dictator to continue with his violent suppression before military action to remove him becomes the only option.

"Given that an attempted final push on Tripoli by the opposition forces could result in mass slaughter - due to a possible imbalance in military hardware - some thought should be given to extending support to the opposition by supplying arms," Dr. Alia Brahimi, a North African specialist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Deutsche Welle.

"However, any mission should not aim at toppling the regime, but at protecting civilians."

Western powers especially run the risk of being accused of procrastination as their economic measures fail to stop the violence. As the numbers of dead rise, the pressure will increase on those expected to lead.

The United States has refused to take the military option off the table but it is believed that the movement of the Sixth Fleet out of dock is a show of strength rather than a prelude to air strikes or a land invasion, contrary to recent statements by Gadhafi's ally and US agitator Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

US discussing plans with NATO

However, UN Ambassador Rice admitted Monday that the US was in talks with its NATO partners and other allies about military options for dealing with Libya while Pentagon spokesman Colonel David Lapan said military planners were working on "various contingency plans."

A US Navy F-18C Hornet flies above the US aircraft carrier Enterprise

US naval forces are making their way to the Libyan coast

The United States has two aircraft carriers in the region - the USS Enterprise in the Red Sea and the USS Carl Vinson in the Arabian Sea - which could be sent to the North African coast if need be.

There are also US air bases in Aviano, Italy, and Incirlik, Turkey should the British proposal of a no-fly zone over Libya be agreed upon and the US agrees to enforce it with its own warplanes.

Elsewhere, the US has its Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain and there are still thousands of US ground troops based in Iraq should a need for a land operation arise suddenly.

Despite the options available, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters Monday that there was "no pending military action involving US naval vessels" but that they could be used for rescue missions rather than offensive operations. Should the situation in Libya deteriorate faster and more violently than expected, the emergency deployment of food, medicine and other aid would become critical.

US wary of unilateral role

The US appears to be wary of going it alone in a messy, fluid situation such as that rapidly unfolding in Libya, especially after the traumatic experiences it suffered in Somalia in the 1990s. Any US involvement would more than likely come as part of a unified UN response, one which experts believe comes with its own set of problems.

"The framing of any UN resolution authorising the use of force will need to be carefully worded if the US and UK, the two countries seemingly most urgently pressing for military action, are to secure the support of other Security Council members, especially Russia and China, countries traditionally hostile to foreign military interventions," David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst at Jane's Defense, told Deutsche Welle.

US Marines search a Somali on a Mogadishu street after U.S. forces landed at various points in the city, Dec. 9, 1992.

The US suffered traumatic losses in Somalia in the 90s

"We do not know how the UN Security Council would react to the much worse situation that would be necessary to have arisen for the question of armed humanitarian action to be put to them," Sir Richard Dalton, a security expert at Chatham House, told Deutsche Welle.

"There may not be enough votes to approve this in which case, any action could only be undertaken by a coalition of the willing."

With Libya located on Europe's doorstep, Washington could pressure NATO's European members to take the lead. However, the EU as a whole lacks a cohesive security force and individual member states have already rejected the military option.

France has warned against military action, stating that humanitarian aid must be the priority in Libya.

"There appears to be no appetite outside or inside Libya for large-scale overt military assistance to the anti-Gadhafi forces; however a no-fly zone would allow the West to claim that it is facilitating the potential removal of Gadhafi at the same time as protecting the majority of the Libyan population, even though such a move would be a violation of Libyan sovereignty," Hartwell said.

Military option to protect civilians

Anti-Libyan Leader Moammar Ghadafi gunmen stand on alert next to an anti-air craft machine gun, as they watch the cost in case any Libyan navy attack, in Benghazi, Libya, on Monday Feb. 28, 2011.

If the opposition suffers great losses, action may be taken

Analysts believe that any military action focussing on the removal of Gadhafi would be fraught with problems and that any deployment of a multilateral protection force should only be considered to prevent genocide.

David Hartwell said that there was a danger that any intervention would allow an increasingly delusional Gadhafi to claim that the revolt against him is a foreign-inspired plot. "While this would be unlikely to alter his current predicament, the onus would remain on opposition forces to take control of Tripoli, a task expected to be accompanied by fierce fighting."

"A military intervention by outside powers at this stage threatens to seriously complicate the internal dynamic within Libya, and possibly bolster Gadhafi's position," Brahimi said.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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