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Gates Says Navy Ships Move for Libyan Aid, U.S. Options

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said two ships and 400 Marines are en route to the Mediterranean Sea near Libya to help with humanitarian relief and evacuations, as NATO member countries differ on potential military intervention.

The Pentagon wants to give President Barack Obama the “full range of options” during the crisis, Gates told reporters at the Pentagon today. The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and the transport dock USS Ponce, a vessel used to transport and land Marines, will enter the Mediterranean shortly, he said.

“We’re obviously looking at a lot of options and contingencies,” Gates said. “No decisions have been made on any other actions.”

The United Nations Security Council’s resolution last week imposing sanctions on Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and his inner circle and calling for other steps doesn’t authorize military action, Gates said.

Military options, such as imposing a no-fly zone to prevent attacks on regime opponents, have consequences that need to be considered carefully, Gates said. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization hasn’t decided on any specific steps.

‘No Unanimity’

“There is no unanimity within NATO for the use of armed force,” Gates said. The alliance’s defense ministers are scheduled to meet for a regular session in Brussels next week. “We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East.”

The U.S. Navy ships are moving to the sea that forms Libya’s northern coast as the U.S. and European nations call for Qaddafi to step down. Libyan rebels are bracing for possible renewed clashes with Qaddafi loyalists who are attempting to regain control of major cities.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Geneva yesterday that the U.S. and its partners are considering a no-fly zone. More than 40 former U.S. officials and human rights activists called for the move last week, as did Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican and former presidential nominee, and Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent.

Senate Resolution

The U.S. Senate today approved a non-binding resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya and endorsing U.S. outreach to forces opposing Qaddafi’s regime.

Senators Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Mark Steven Kirk, an Illinois Republican, teamed on the resolution, which condemns Qaddafi for “gross and systematic violations of human rights,” describes his regime as “a brutal dictatorship,” and urges him to resign.

European foreign ministers meeting with Clinton yesterday expressed skepticism that a no-fly zone for Libya could be effective and concern over how it would be viewed by other Arab nations.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan today called potential NATO intervention in Libya “unthinkable.”

Gates and Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said they have seen no confirmation of reports that Qaddafi has used aircraft to fire on Libyans.

The Obama administration has little information about the number of casualties or the capabilities of Qaddafi’s opponents, Gates said.

‘Realm of Speculation’

“We’re in the same realm of speculation pretty much as everybody else,” he said.

The U.S. also is “keeping an eye” on Libya’s actions in relation to remaining stocks of chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, Gates said.

“Our information is that security around those things has been increased,” he said. “I think it’s not an immediate concern for us.”

The Pentagon already has halted military relations with Qaddafi’s regime, which were in any case in preliminary stages. The U.S. moved cautiously to re-establish relations with Qaddafi after Libya agreed in 2008 to pay compensation for families of victims in the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. A former Libyan intelligence officer, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, was convicted of murder in 2001 for his involvement in the bombing, which killed 270 people.

Gates and Mullen insisted that they were “optimistic” about the longer-term ramifications of the strategic shifts in the Middle East, which include the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, and opposition pressure on regimes in Bahrain and Jordan.

The rise of more democratic governments would be a gain, they said. Mullen said he doesn’t believe Iran is fomenting the turmoil.

Al-Qaeda ‘Setback’

The current opposition movements are “an extraordinary setback for al-Qaeda” and a “major setback” for Iran, Gates said.

“It basically gives the lie to al-Qaeda’s claim that the only way to get rid of authoritarian governments is through extremist violence,” Gates said. The restraint shown by militaries in Tunisia and Egypt and mostly also in Bahrain contrasts “vividly with the savage repression that the Iranians have undertaken against anybody who dares to demonstrate.”

The opposition movements in the countries involved aren’t aimed against the U.S. and instead revolve around internal issues, Mullen and Gates said. As a result, they are unlikely to significantly harm the Pentagon’s ties with the countries involved, Gates said.

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