By Angela Charlton / AP
PARIS: In diplomatic terms, international military action against Libya’s leader went from the brainstorming stage to the shooting-at-tanks stage with stunning speed.
Saturday’s launch of military strikes by French, British and US forces with Arab backing and UN mandate was not universally endorsed. And it’s unclear whether it will be fast enough to do what its proponents want, to shore up rebel forces and oust Libya’s leader Moammar Qaddafi.
But the cascade of quick, weighty decisions getting there was unusual — just one of the unusual things about this dramatic operation.
It has the backing of the Arab League, which has balked at other interventions in the Arab world and is known more for lengthy deliberations than action.
And it was initiated by the French, who famously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who announced that 22 participants in an emergency summit in Paris on Saturday had agreed to launch armed action against Qaddafi’s military. And a French fighter jet reported the first strike Saturday afternoon, against a Libyan military vehicle in or near Benghazi, the heart of the uprising against the longtime leader, before over a hundred cruise missiles fired from U.S and British ships slammed into this north African nation.
The action in Libya came after the international community was slow to respond to swelling protests in Tunisia and then Egypt in January and February that toppled longtime autocrats and sparked uprisings around the Arab world.
Leaders and diplomats dawdled less when Libya’s Qaddafi started shooting at protesters.
On Feb. 26, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Qaddafi’s regime after just about two days of discussion, and as rebel forces gained ground against the Libyan military.
On March 10, France recognized the opposition Interim Governing Council as the “legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.” The next day, the 27-nation European Union offered the opposition similar support.
Support in Arab countries mounted for a no-fly zone. Some members wanted to make sure there was no full-blown Western invasion, and hoped endorsing a no-fly zone would give them more leverage with the West on military plans.
With Qaddafi’s forces showing signs of a resurgency, the 22-member Arab League called March 12 for the UN’s Security Council to impose a no-fly zone.
That was a crucial moment, especially for the United States. Without Arab support, any intervention would have risked being seen as a Western occupation.
France and Britain pushed for a new, stronger UN resolution. Washington, initially reluctant, said even a no-fly zone wouldn’t be enough, paving the way for authorization of a draft calling for “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.
That resolution won UN adoption Thursday, March 17.
On Friday, the US, France and Britain sent Qaddafi a letter telling him a cease-fire must begin immediately, or risk the consequences.
On Saturday morning, Qaddafi’s forces defied their own cease-fire, aiming new strikes on Benghazi.
Western warplanes and warships amassed around the Mediterranean, from Canada, Britain, Denmark, the United States.
Sarkozy hastily gathered 22 high-powered guests for a lunch summit Saturday: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, British Prime Minister David Cameron, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, and top officials from around Europe and Arab countries.
After lunch, Sarkozy announced that the political leaders had agreed to launch military action. French planes, he said, were already in the air.
Ninety minutes later, French military officials reported their first strike.
This was all very different from past protracted, divisive UN debates over military intervention. In 2002-2003, France especially was vehemently opposed to action in Iraq, and Britain was forced to withdraw a UN resolution authorizing force against Saddam Hussein. The United States then organized a coalition without UN approval.
On Saturday, the UN chief hailed the Paris summit on Libya as a success.
It’s “never too late” to undertake an operation like this, Ban said. “Arab countries, Europeans, Americans — they were all in one voice,” he said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said “we have every reason to fear that left unchecked, Qaddafi will commit unspeakable atrocities.”
Cameron said after the summit: “We have to make it stop. … The time for action has come, it needs to be urgent.”
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also in Paris, said Qaddafi’s claim of a cease-fire “was an obvious lie from the beginning.”
The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an umbrella organization representing 57 Muslim nations, called on member states to help implement the UN resolution and to establish contacts with the Libyan opposition.
But several countries remain cautious or openly critical about the risky operation.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it noted the launch of operations “with regret,” and noted that the UN resolution authorizing them was “hastily approved.”
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has longstanding ties to Qaddafi, said the US and its allies simply want to “seize Libya’s oil” and that the United Nations has “infringed on its fundamental principles.”
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said she backed the operation but added, “We will not participate with our own soldiers.” Cyprus, in the Mediterranean northeast of Libya, said it didn’t want to get involved.
NATO is divided over whether it should take a leading role or just provide support to air forces already engaged in the mission.
In Brussels, NATO’s top decision-making body appeared poised to decide on Sunday “if and how the alliance will join” the effort, said Martin Povejsil, the Czech Republic’s envoy to NATO.
While Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are taking part, according to French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, it’s unclear whether bigger Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia could join in.
Sarkozy acknowledged the risks of the operation, and insisted it did not amount to an international occupation force.
“There is still time for Col. Qaddafi to avoid the worst by complying without delay and without reservations to all the demands of the international community. The door of diplomacy will reopen at the moment when the aggressions cease,” Sarkozy said.
Canada’s Harper acknowledged that the diplomatic push will result in bloodshed.
“We should not kid ourselves,” he told reporters in Paris. “One cannot promise perfection, or that there will not be casualties on our side.”
But he added, “We’re dealing with a regime that will not be satisfied with the reimposition of its authority. … They will massacre every single individual they remotely suspect of disloyalty.” –Jamey Keaten, Matthew Lee, Greg Keller, Cassandra Vinograd and Samantha Bordes in Paris and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.