- - Sunday, April 24, 2011

Fearing a stalemate in Libya, three members of the Senate Armed Services Committee want immediate military aid for the rebels fighting Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces, stepped up NATO airstrikes and more direct U.S. involvement.

They said they interpreted the U.N. Security Council resolution - authorizing military action to protect Libyan civilians and imposing a no-fly zone - as also allowing moves necessary to drive Col. Gadhafi from power.

“I think it gives justification if NATO decides it wants to, for going directly after Gadhafi,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent. “I can’t think of anything that would protect the civilian population of Libya more than the removal of Moammar Gadhafi.”

Indeed, early Monday, downtown Tripoli was hit by some of the most powerful explosions to hit the Libyan capital in weeks of fighting and an airstrike hit Col. Gadhafi’s office at his sprawling residence.

A Libyan official accompanying Agence France-Presse journalists at the scene of Col. Gadhafi’s office said 45 people were wounded, 15 seriously, in that bombing. He added that he did not know whether there were victims under the rubble.

“It was an attempt to assassinate Col. Gadhafi,” he said.

The damage followed a violent Sunday in Misrata, despite a vow by the Libyan regime to halt its fire in the western port where the humanitarian situation has stirred international concern. At least 12 were reported killed and 60 wounded.

Two captured pro-Gadhafi foreign mercenaries told AFP that loyalist forces were losing their grip in the battle for Misrata. “Many soldiers want to surrender, but they are afraid of being executed” by the rebels, said Lili Mohammed, a Mauritanian hired by the Libyan regime.

A protracted stalemate and a divided Libya, with Col. Gadhafi and the opposition controlling different parts, could open the door to the al Qaeda terrorist network, said Sen. John McCain, who visited a rebel stronghold last week. He described the opposition in Benghazi as “this very legitimate government.”

Even with more arms for the rebels, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, there isn’t enough momentum for them to reach Tripoli, the capital, and there isn’t “deep support” for Col. Gadhafi’s continued rule.

“So my recommendation to NATO and the administration is to cut the head of the snake off, go to Tripoli, start bombing Gadhafi’s inner circle, their compounds, their military headquarters,” he said.

While saying it’s good to have international coalitions and U.N. involvement, “the goal is to get rid of Gadhafi,” Mr. Graham argued.

“The people around Gadhafi need to wake up every day wondering, ‘Will this be my last?’ The military commanders in Tripoli supporting Gadhafi should be pounded,” Mr. Graham said. “So I would not let the U.N. mandate stop what is the right thing to do. You cannot protect the Libyan people if Gadhafi stays.”

Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, was not as enthusiastic about targeting Col. Gadhafi, noting that “we have tried those things in the past with other dictators, and it’s a little harder than you think it is.” Col. Gadhafi is elusive and “a great survivor,” and there’s the potential for civilian casualties, which could turn the Libyan people against the U.S., he said.

“The point is that we can’t count on taking Gadhafi out. What we can count on is a trained, equipped, well-supported liberation [force], which can either force Gadhafi out or obtain victory and send him to an international criminal court,” said Mr. McCain, the top Republican on the Senate committee.

“My emphasis is on winning the battle on the ground, not taking a chance on taking him out with a lucky airstrike.”

Mr. Lieberman and Mr. McCain want increased use of U.S. precision weapons and American air power returned to the mission.

“We need our allies. I appreciate that they’ve come in. But we’re the heart of NATO, and it’s not exactly as if we took the ball and gave it to NATO,” Mr. Lieberman said. “We’re still NATO, and I think some of our assets that we removed … ought to go back into the fight.”

Mr. Lieberman and Mr. McCain appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” broadcast on Sunday; Mr. Graham’s remarks, aired on the same show, were taped on Friday.

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