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Libya's Civilians Suffer In Bloody Stalemate

Libya

First Posted: 03/24/11 06:59 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:40 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Libya’s civilians, already suffering shortages of food, water and power, are being battered by Muammar Gaddafi’s military forces in the country's west despite the military intervention of a U.S.-led coalition intended to protect civilians.

Meantime, contingency planning for the next steps to protect civilians, providing security and humanitarian relief, is on hold because of confusion and squabbling over the ultimate goal of the military intervention.

White House officials tried to clear up the confusion Thursday, saying that while the United States hopes that Gaddafi steps down, it will not use force to make that happen. “We are not engaged in militarily-driven regime change,’’ White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

The confusion over the precise goal of the U.S.-led military intervention is likely to increase as NATO moves to take over overall direction of the military operation, with its 28 member countries plus several unaffiliated Arab states already at odds over what the ultimate goal and the best way to achieve that goal should be. At issue: does last week’s U.N. Security Council resolution order ordering “all necessary measures … to protect civilians" require taking down the Gaddafi regime, and if not, how can civilians be protected?

U.S. and international aid officials said they are stockpiling relief supplies, but are powerless to act in the current circumstances or even to draw up plans to coordinate the hundreds of governmental and private aid organizations that would pour into Libya if given the chance. Since the military operation was put together hurriedly late last week, there is no contingency plan for an eventual transition from purely military operations to humanitarian relief, experts said.

“The ultimate objective of this operation is not particularly clear, and that makes it difficult to think about contingency planning, because you have to start with an outcome you want to achieve, and then work out how you do humanitarian assistance,’’ said Nora Bensahel, an expert on Middle East and postwar operations at the Center for a New American Security, a centrist Washington think tank.

Thus, as Operation Odyssey Dawn enters its seventh day, the conflict has veered into a bloody stalemate. Gaddafi’s forces are battered but still able and willing to fight while Libya’s civilians are left seemingly on their own, with only the scant protection that U.S. and allied strike jets can provide from overhead.

And that air protection diminishes in effectiveness as Gaddafi’s tanks, armored personnel carriers and mobile rocket launchers probe deeper into the streets and crowded urban neighborhoods of Misurata, Adjabiyah and other cities, where they are more protected from air strikes because allied pilots are not authorized to attack when there is a significant risk of civilian casualties.

“We are not striking inside the cities,’’ Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, told Pentagon reporters Thursday. Instead, airstrikes are aimed at Libyan logistics lines to try to cut off the regime’s forces from food, water, gasoline and ammunition. While the United States is bombarding Libyan forces with leaflets and radio broadcasts advising them to give up, no Libyan units or soldiers have done so, Gortney said.

Meanwhile, relief officials said, the plight of Libya’s civilians -- especially those in the western cities under Gaddafi’s control -- is worsening dramatically, with many areas without water, power or phone service and growing shortages of food and medical care. Many doctors and nurses in Libya were foreigners who have fled since the unrest began more than a month ago, aid officials said. Those remaining at Misurata’s hospital were evacuated along with their patients Thursday after Libyan tanks began firing in the neighborhood.

“The need is very serious and very pressing,’’ said Asma Yousef, a Libyan-American who directs Islamic Relief USA, which does relief work in Japan and Haiti and along Libya’s borders. “We were expecting a serious humanitarian crisis in Misurata even before this started,’’ she said, referring to Gaddafi’s siege of the city.

But U.S. officials and private relief agencies said they can’t properly plan for the next phase of the conflict without knowing whether the allies intend to pry Gaddafi from power or to leave him as the diminished dictator of western Libya. Both moves would dramatically affect how they can import supplies and hire local workers, among other operational details.

“Right now, we are in the heart of the storm and obviously no one has a crystal ball as to how this is going to develop,’’ said Sybella Wilkes, an official with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Geneva. “And there’s no end in sight,’’ she added.

Disaster relief planners have prepared as well as they can. USAID, the American aid agency, has positioned workers on Libya’s borders with 1,500 metric tons of food -- enough to feed 100,000 people for a month -- along with four mobile medical clinics that can treat 10,000 people for a month. There they sit.

International aid agencies met for hours in Washington Thursday to discuss the Libya situation with senior U.S. military officers and State Department disaster relief officials, but at this point -- with most of the relief needed in western Libya, where Gaddafi has denied access to relief agencies -- there is little that can be done until the situation is clarified, one official said.

“We are waiting to hear what happens,’’ said the official, who requested anonymity due to the confidential nature of the discussions. ”What needs to happen, theoretically? A cease-fire, at least, one that would allow our (aid) community to go in.’’

Gerald Martone, the director of humanitarian operations for the International Rescue Committee, said contingency planning is impossible because “we’re in the dark. The blind spot for all of us is what’s happening inside Libya. We don’t know the numbers or locations or conditions of displaced people within the country. What we’re waiting for is access.’’

But all recognize that there is a danger in waiting. If the Gaddafi regime collapsed tomorrow, it would take days and weeks for aid agencies to move in. And without detailed planning, including the provision of basic security, there could be same kind of confusion that initially hampered relief efforts after the Haitian earthquake last year.

“I am very, very concerned right now that we’re not talking enough about phase four, a post-Gaddafi Libya,’’ said Max Boot, a defense expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “We’re very much focused on the immediate objective, but we’re not looking down the road to, 'How do we create a stable and relatively peaceful Libya after Gaddafi’s departure?'’’

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