- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s tenacious hold on power forced NATO on Wednesday to extend its mission to protect civilians and caused consternation on Capitol Hill over U.S. involvement in the North African conflict.

Despite deadly airstrikes and defections by top officials, Col. Gadhafi has frustrated rebels’ attempts to drive him from power and Western efforts to facilitate Libya’s transition from autocracy to democracy.

With Col. Gadhafi weakened but still in power, a mission that was supposed to last 90 days to guard civilians from deadly reprisals will now go on at least another 90 days, NATO announced Wednesday.

“This decision sends a clear message to the Gadhafi regime: We are determined to continue our operation to protect the people of Libya,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. “We will sustain our efforts to fulfill the United Nations mandate. We will keep up the pressure to see it through.”

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House on Wednesday delayed a vote on a resolution calling for an end to U.S. participation in the NATO mission, forestalling a display of congressional pique over President Obama’s policy on Libya.

Nearly three months after Mr. Obama launched airstrikes to back the rebels battling Col. Gadhafi, lawmakers from both parties are expressing exasperation with the administration’s inability to spell out a strategy, one GOP leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to freely describe the situation, told the Associated Press.

What’s more, Libya’s opposition forces have not shown that they are capable of toppling the country’s longtime dictator.

Military analysts offer a number of reasons why Col. Gadhafi stays in power amid thousands of airstrikes by advanced NATO jets on the capital of Tripoli and on his military.

They say he appears to be moving within civilian areas that are off-limits to the alliance’s target list and NATO has not adopted an overt policy of directly targeting Col. Gadhafi, as opposed to U.S. policy in Iraq going after Saddam Hussein.

NATO does not appear to be directly targeting Col. Gadhafi,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Mark T. Kimmitt, a senior operations officer in Iraq. “Should he be in a military headquarters during a NATO attack, that would be a serendipitous occasion for the overall campaign.”

NATO discloses some of its “key hits” each day. A review of the past three days showed no strike on a major command center or government building that might be sheltering Col. Gadhafi.

“Key hits” for Tuesday were storage buildings, a surface-to-air launcher, truck-mounted guns and a rocket launcher during 46 sorties. In all, the alliance has flown nearly 10,000 missions.

The Libyan leader’s elusiveness, combined with U.S. involvement in two other wars and a troubled economy, have prompted members of Congress to seek an end to the U.S. participation in the NATO mission.

Fearing strained relations with NATO allies, House leaders postponed a vote on a resolution by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat. It appears likely that Democrats and Republicans would join forces to support the resolution, and GOP leaders plan to hold a special meeting Thursday to consider next moves, including rescheduling a vote.

“I am disappointed that the president and leadership feel the need to buy even more time to shore up support for the war in Libya,” Mr. Kucinich said in a statement. “It’s not surprising that some are now wondering if a preliminary vote count on my resolution came out in favor of defending the Constitution.”

Mr. Kucinich has accused the president of violating the Constitution, which gives only Congress the power to declare war, and the Wars Power Act, which requires the president to seek congressional authorization 60 days after the start of military operations.

In the face of Col. Gadhafi’s resilience, NATO is presenting an upbeat story on each day’s bombings, focusing on strikes that prevent the military from killing civilians.

NATO air operations have maintained an intense tempo in Tripoli,” said Wing Cmdr. Mike Bracken of the British Royal Air Force. “Precision strikes continue on pro-Gadhafi forces and facilities which threaten the civilian population.”

NATO has adopted a policy of “Gadhafi must go” but has denied it is specifically targeting him.

Stephen Biddle, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, seemed to predict the current war status in an assessment of air power written more than a month ago.

“Western air power can easily annihilate Moammar Gadhafi’s modest air force and prevent him from using massed armor and artillery in the open,” he said. “But once the dictator’s forces move into populated areas and resort to fighting among the civilian population, the utility of air power diminishes rapidly.”

With NATO promising to protect civilians, Mr. Biddle said, “a dictator willing to mix ruthless fighters with innocent noncombatants poses serious challenges to limited applications of precision air power.”

Libya’s former top oil official, Shokri Ghanem, turned up in Rome on Wednesday to say he had defected from the Gadhafi regime because of the “continuous” bloodshed and warfare in his homeland. His whereabouts had been unknown for several days.

“I left the country and decided also to leave my job and to join the choice of Libyan youths to create a modern constitutional state respecting human rights and building a better future for all Libyans,” said Mr. Ghanem, noting his resignation as chief of Libya’s National Oil Corp.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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