CAIRO — The Arab League called Saturday for the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, a surprisingly rapid and aggressive move for a bloc known more for lengthy deliberations than action.
Analysts said the call reflected both a widespread dislike of Libyan autocrat Moammar Gadhafi and member nations' attention to the wave of pro-democracy protests sweeping the Middle East, which has toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens others.
The 22-member Arab bloc, which had already barred Libya's government from taking part in League meetings, said Gadhafi's government had "lost its sovereignty." It also said the bloc would establish contacts with the rebels' interim government, the National Libyan Council, and called on nations to provide it with "urgent help."
Western diplomats have said Arab and African approval was necessary before the Security Council could vote on a no-fly zone that would be imposed by NATO nations such as the U.S., France, Britain and Italy to protect civilians from air attack by Gadhafi's forces.
The U.S. and other countries have expressed deep reservations about any action that could draw them into the conflict. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cautioned that establishing a no-fly zone would require an attack to take out Libya's anti-aircraft capabilities, but on Saturday he said setting up a restricted zone was possible.
In Saturday's statement, the Arab League asked the "United Nations to shoulder its responsibility ... to impose a no-fly zone over the movement of Libyan military planes and to create safe zones in the places vulnerable to airstrikes."
The Obama administration welcomed the decision, which White House spokesman Jay Carney said "strengthens the international pressure on Gadhafi and support for the Libyan people." He said the United States will prepare for all contingencies and coordinate with allies.
Amr el-Shobaki, an Egyptian political analyst, said the decision reflects the upheaval in the Arab world, which also includes serious unrest in Bahrain and Yemen as well as rumblings of anti-government dissent in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq.
"It would be very difficult for the Arab League to ignore the Arab people as they have in the past," he said.
El-Shobaki also said Gadhafi has few real friends among Arab leaders – he has publicly clashed with and insulted many of them, including at Arab League summits.
"He brings to mind a figure such as Saddam," he said.
League Secretary-General Amr Moussa also acknowledged the region's rapidly shifting currents in a press conference after the meeting.
"There is a new direction that has been imposed by new changes on the Arab stage," he said.
Moussa said a no-fly zone would be humanitarian measure to protect Libyan civilians and foreigners in the country and not a military intervention.
That stance appeared to be part of an attempt to win over the deeply Arab nationalist government of Syria, which has smarted against foreign intervention into Arab affairs. Still, Syria voted against the no-fly zone, as did Libya's neighbor Algeria and Mauritania in West Africa.
The statement said the Arab League rejected "all kinds of foreign intervention" in Libya but warned that "not taking the necessary action to end the crisis will lead to intervention in Libya's foreign affairs."
The Arab League cannot impose a no-fly zone itself. But the approval of the key regional Arab body gives the U.S. and other Western powers crucial regional backing they say they need before doing so. Many were weary that Western powers would be seen as intervening in the affairs of an Arab country if they began a no-fly zone without Arab approval.
Still, the Obama administration has said a no-fly zone may have limited impact, and the international community is divided over the issue.
On Saturday, Gates told reporters accompanying him home from a trip to Bahrain that a no-fly zone was possible.
"We can do it," Gates said hours before the Arab League vote occurred. "The question is whether it's a wise thing to do. And that's the discussion that's going at a political level."
Moussa said the League would immediately inform the U.N. of its call.
Backing the rebel's political leadership, the League statement said it had faced "grievous violations and serious crimes by the Libyan authorities, which have lost their sovereignty."
It remained to be seen if any Arab forces would participate in air patrols in support of a no-fly zone.
Former and current diplomats assigned to the Arab League said they were not aware of another time when the regional bloc approved a measure that infringed on the sovereignty of a member state.
They noted that even when Arab nations supported the U.S. during the 1991 Gulf War to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, they did not have an Arab League mandate to do so.
The League's decision comes hours before the European Union's policy chief is set to arrive in Cairo to meet with the Arab bloc's leaders to discuss the situation in Libya.
Catherine Ashton said she hoped to discuss a "collaborative approach" with Arab League chief Moussa on Libya and the rest of the region.
Ashton said it was necessary to evaluate how effective economic sanctions imposed on Gadhafi's regime had been so far and that she was "keeping all options moving forward" regarding any additional measures.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle welcomed the EU's "very cautious" stance on possible military intervention.
"We do not want to be drawn into a war in north Africa – we should have learned from the events in and surrounding Iraq," Westerwelle said.
"It is very important that the impression doesn't arise that this is a conflict of the West against the Arab world or a Christian crusade against people of Muslim faith."
Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.