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Arab Countries May Back No-Fly Zone for Libya Within Days, Ambassador Says

The Arab League feels a “sense of urgency” over violence in Libya and may call this week for a no-fly zone to shield civilians and rebels from further attacks by Muammar Qaddafi’s forces, the Arab League’s ambassador in Washington said.

“The no-fly zone, I think, is now the objective of the international community,” Hussein Hassouna, the Arab League envoy to the U.S., said in an interview at Bloomberg’s Washington bureau yesterday. “We’ve seen every day the battles are raging and there are more casualties, so I would think that within a week, something might have to be enforced. If we leave this for too long, things will be worse and worse for the people.”

Hassouna said the “eccentric” Qaddafi has the means to stay in power “for some time” with help from his sons and mercenaries, and perhaps from “missiles that he hasn’t used.” Qaddafi, 68, won’t “leave by his own free will,” Hassouna predicted.

If the Arab League’s 22 member countries endorse a no-fly zone over Libya at a crisis meeting in Cairo on March 12, Hassouna said he believes that the United Nations Security Council and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will respect the sentiment of the region’s leaders and could follow suit.

“I think by next week the United Nations will probably also take a position on that, and then we’ll see what the NATO countries will do,” he said.

UN Decision

The Obama administration has neither endorsed nor ruled out the imposition of a no-fly zone. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking yesterday to Sky News, suggested that the U.S. would participate only if the international community supports such an action.

“We think it’s important that the United Nations make this decision, not the United States. And so far, the United Nations has not done that,” she said.

Hassouna warned that Arab countries “are not in favor of foreign military intervention,” and he predicted that no ground troops would be sent to Libya. In the longer term, he said, if Libyan rebels gain credibility as a legitimate national movement, some countries may help supply weapons. A rebel council has requested recognition by the UN and other international organizations.

Hassouna acknowledged that “once you start a military step, there’s always a danger of escalation” and said there were “many scenarios” of how Qaddafi might retaliate, including cutting off Libya’s oil supply or unleashing missiles.

Oil Production Cut

Violence in Libya, Africa’s third-largest crude oil producer, has cut output by as much as 1 million barrels a day, according to the International Energy Agency. The North African country pumped 1.39 million barrels a day in February, down from 1.59 million the previous month, according to Bloomberg estimates.

Members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and oil producers outside the group have made up for the cut in crude shipments from Libya, Qatar’s oil minister, Mohammed Saleh Al Sada, said yesterday.

NATO Involvement

NATO defense ministers, who have ordered increased surveillance of Libya’s airspace, are scheduled to meet in Brussels on March 10 and March 11 to discuss alliance involvement in Libya.

Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said he had urged the alliance to consider how it might deploy aircraft, ships and surveillance equipment to enforce a no-fly zone, though NATO’s members haven’t decided what action, if any, to take.

“Towards the end of the week, we will be in a position to know what it would take to do a no-fly zone,” he said March 7.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that a successful campaign would require attacking Libya’s air defenses and that a no-fly zone would be complicated to enforce.

Members of Congress -- including Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- have called for a no-fly zone, saying such a measure isn’t as difficult as the administration suggests.

‘Changed for Good’

Speaking about the popular uprisings that ousted Tunisian President Zine Al Abidine Ben Aliand Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and have spread throughout the Arab world, Hassouna said the “region will be changed for good.”

Hassouna, an Egyptian diplomat for three decades before he became an Arab League representative, praised Egypt’s uprising for being youth-led, inclusive across religious and gender lines, and peaceful. He called on the U.S. to assist Egypt’s democratic transition by considering a free-trade agreement or debt-forgiveness, along with increased economic aid, especially for education and scientific research.

“It will be good if there are concrete steps of support, not just verbal support,” he said, adding, “The United States should encourage the change, but not try to direct it. This is an Egyptian story, an Arab story.”

Hassouna said the popular demands for greater democracy, economic opportunity and “dignity” are contagious and “this bug is going to affect everyone” in the region, if not always in the same way.

Different Pressures

Kingdoms face different political and social pressures than do republics, while oil-rich Gulf nations have more resources than poor African states, he said. Saudi Arabia, Morocco and other monarchies whose rulers have religious as well as political clout may weather the storm better than others, he said.

Yemen, with high levels of poverty and a strong rebel movement, is a country of special concern. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has promised to not seek to renew his mandate after 2013, he said.

“Once the dust settles” on Arab political turmoil, Hassouna said he hopes attention will return to the “core issue in the region,” the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that all sides will make a “strong push for peace.” He called on Israel to freeze settlements as a “significant gesture to help in this process.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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