NATO agreed Sunday to take command of the airstrikes over Libya from the U.S.-led coalition, as rebels advanced on the capital, Tripoli, seizing key coastal towns from forces loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance has decided to “take on the whole military operation in Libya under the United Nations Security Council Resolution.”
“Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the Gadhafi regime. NATO will implement all aspects of the U.N. resolution. Nothing more, nothing less,” he added.
In addition to maintaining the no-fly zone approved by a U.N. Security Council resolution this month, the alliance will be in charge of airstrikes to protect civilians on the ground. These attacks have been carried out by U.S., British and French forces.
Rebels told The Washington Times in satellite phone interviews that they had recaptured key oil towns Ajdabiya, Ras Lanuf and Brega over the weekend in a westward advance on Tripoli. They also claimed to control Uqayla and Bin Jawad on the Mediterranean coast in the eastern part of the country.
The rebels now face a significant battle in Sirte, Col. Gadhafi’s tribal stronghold that remains loyal to the regime and blocks their westward progress. The coalition began softening targets in Sirte and Tripoli on Sunday night. Both cities were hit by airstrikes.
In Misurata, 130 miles east of Tripoli, Col. Gadhafi’s forces were still fighting for control of the largest rebel-held town in western Libya, despite being pounded by coalition airstrikes. The regime’s snipers also continued picking off targets from their rooftop vantage points, residents said.
The rebels say they need arms and military training from the international community if they are to be expected to build on the advantage created by coalition airstrikes and topple the regime.
In joint appearances on Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates held open the possibility of providing weapons. They said U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which allows all necessary steps to protect Libyan civilians, permits the international community to arm the rebels.
“The reason is because there is an arms embargo against the Gadhafi regime that was established in the first resolution, Resolution 1970, which applied to the entire country. In the follow-on resolution, 1973, there is an exception if countries or organizations were to choose to use that,” Mrs. Clinton told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
A Western diplomat, who spoke on background, said there is a legal debate over whether arms can be supplied to the rebels.
“It would be a big step to go down that route. I don’t think anyone has excluded it, but I don’t think anyone has taken any decisions on it,” he said.
According to some sources in Cairo, arms have been flowing from Egypt to rebel fighters across the border in Libya.
International pressure from sanctions, the no-fly zone and freeze of the regime’s assets is beginning to show results, Western officials said.
In recent days, some members of the Gadhafi regime have made overtures to the international community. The coalition has yet to determine whether to take these seriously.
“We have things in our toolbox in addition to hammers. … One should not underestimate the possibility of the regime, itself, cracking,” Mr. Gates told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton said the coalition has been largely successful in its effort to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
“Now, the no-fly zone and even the humanitarian side will have to be sustained for some period of time,” Mr. Gates said.
President Obama will address the nation on his administration’s priorities in Libya on Monday.
On Tuesday, a conference will be convened in London to discuss the situation in the North African nation and steps to avert a humanitarian disaster.
NATO states, the United Nations, the Arab League and the African Union have been invited to the meeting. A contact group of nations, made up of a broad representation of participants, will be set up to take the work forward.
The international community has barely engaged with the African Union on isolating the Gadhafi regime, and participants at the London conference are expected to explore this option.
Mahmoud Jibril, who was appointed by the rebels as prime minister of a provisional government last week, has not been officially invited to the conference but will be on its sidelines in the British capital.
Arab League participation is a key factor in the success of the conference.
The Arab League was the first to support a no-fly zone over Libya, but member states have been slow to step forward with assistance in this effort.
Only Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have contributed to the coalition’s effort. The UAE initially withheld support because it was upset over U.S. criticism of the crackdown in Bahrain. That annoyance has since dissipated, and Western officials insist no quid pro quo was involved.
Now that the UAE has come on board, other Arab nations may follow.
“Converting Arab political commitments into action is always harder than we would like,” the Western diplomat said.
But, he added, the fact that the Arab League made the historic decision to support a no-fly zone is an indicator of two things: “a recognition that the Arab spring has changed the rules of the game for a lot of them, and a strong belief among Arab leaders that Gadhafi is a liability for the Arab world and they will be better off without him.”
Ali S. Aujali, the former Libyan ambassador in Washington who has publicly disowned the Gadhafi regime, told The Washington Times he was pleasantly surprised by the Arab League’s position in the crisis.
“There is a wave of change, not only among the regimes and among the people, but also in the Arab institutions and the Arab organizations,” Mr. Aujali said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Jibril’s presence in London will give the international community the opportunity to meet with him and get a better sense of the rebels. Mrs. Clinton met Mr. Jibril in Paris earlier this month, and U.S. officials said she came away impressed.
France is the only country to give diplomatic recognition to the rebel government. Other Western nations want them to first build up their political credibility and capacity.
“What they tell us in private is that they do aspire to democratic values, but I think they will be the first to admit that they are not very well organized yet,” the Western diplomat said.
“The future of Libya is for the Libyans to work out, but it would be much easier for us to give them support if they are espousing values that we espouse,” he added.