- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Libya is at risk of collapsing into a “protracted civil war” amid increasingly violent clashes between government forces and those opposed to leader Moammar Gadhafi, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Tuesday.

She told Congress that the U.S. must lead an international response to the crisis.

But while Mrs. Clinton said that protective military air cover in Libya is a real possibility, she and the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East said it would be challenging and there would be drawbacks.

Testifying before a separate panel, Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, said the military would have to take out Libyan air defenses in order to establish a no-fly zone there.

He said a no-fly zone above the African nation would deter any attempt by Col. Gadhafi to launch bombing raids on his own citizens as they mass for anti-government protests. But Gen. Mattis said it would require military action to establish the no-fly zone, something he acknowledged would be difficult.

International partners the United States would need for such patrols are divided about the idea, and while the U.S. would probably be the main participant in any such network, no U.S. official is known to have fully endorsed it.

The discussions come as international leaders weigh additional sanctions and other actions to take as they press for Col. Gadhafi to step down and end decades of tyrannical reign.

Gen. Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee ships have been dispatched through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea, to be ready for any assistance or other actions President Obama should order.

He added that it is too early to say how the uprisings will turn out.

He added, “We don’t want to see this change slide into a new form of authoritarianism. So while there is both opportunity and danger, it requires unrelenting engagement by our nation. The central challenge for us, I believe, is how to make common cause with our friends throughout the region.”

Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican, said the unrest rocking countries across the Middle East provides an unprecedented opportunity to support the people there in shaping a new order that is more consistent with U.S. interests and values.

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