President Barack Obama renewed his call for Muammar Qaddafi to give up power in Libya and said he has authorized the U.S. military to study a “full range of options” to respond to violence in the North African country.
“We will continue to send a clear message: The violence must stop,” Obama said today at a news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon at the White House. Qaddafi “has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave.”
Obama said he has ordered the Pentagon to help evacuate Egyptians who are stranded in Tunisia after fleeing Libya and authorized chartering of private aircraft to get other refugees back home. He said he wants to continue working with international partners as the civil strife continues in Libya, holder of Africa’s largest oil reserves. The options being studied include both military measures and humanitarian assistance.
The U.S. must be able “to act, potentially rapidly, if the situation deteriorated in such a way that you had a humanitarian crisis on our hands,” Obama said. He said there is danger that the turmoil may end up in a “bloody” stalemate.
Two U.S. Navy warships, with 800 Marines aboard, will arrive off Libya within a day or two for possible humanitarian operations, and an additional 400 Marines have been dispatched, according to Josh Diddams, a spokesman for the Marine Corps at the Pentagon. Admiral Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, said two aircraft carriers are already in the region and a third, the USS George H.W. Bush, is preparing for deployment there from Norfolk, Virginia.
The conflict’s focal point moved eastward yesterday following earlier clashes close to the capital, Tripoli, where Qaddafi has retained control. Northeast of Brega, warplanes bombed an area near Ajdabiya, where the rebels have seized an army camp, and Al Arabiya television reported that 16 people were killed.
Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a specialist on the region, said in a report on the institute’s website that the battle in Libya is likely to be an extended conflict and that a no-fly zone may be inadequate to deal with Qaddafi’s remaining forces.
“Both sides lack the offensive capability to bring the conflict to a rapid conclusion,” he wrote. Rising casualties and heightened humanitarian concerns will “increase pressure for external military intervention,” he wrote.
Call for Intervention
Opposition leaders are calling for international air strikes against Qaddafi’s forces, and there is mounting pressure from lawmakers in the U.S. to establish a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the regime from using aircraft against the rebels.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that setting up a no-fly zone over the North African country would first require attacking and destroying Libyan air defenses. He told a House panel that it would be “a big operation in a big country.”
China joined Russia yesterday in signaling likely opposition to action by the United Nations Security Council to authorize such action.
While Obama didn’t directly answer a question about whether he supports imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, he said it was among the options being examined. He declined to specify what other steps the U.S. may be willing to undertake, saying “I don’t want us hamstrung.”
The U.S. is mounting an operation to assist some of the people who have fled Libya since the fighting began.
State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said the president had authorized the deployment of military and civilian aircraft “to assist in the movement of third-country nationals out of Libya and back to their host nations.”
Crowley said people from more than 20 nations are among those gathering around Libya’s border with Tunisia.
The UN refugee agency said March 1 that more than 150,000 people have fled Libya to neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
Concern that the uprisings which already have toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt will continue spreading to major oil producing countries have helped drive up oil prices, which have risen 26 percent in the last year. Oil output in Libya, which produces about 1.8 percent of world supply, has dropped by as much as 1 million barrels a day since the unrest began, the International Energy Agency said yesterday.
Prices declined as much as 2 percent today after the Arab League said it was holding discussions with Venezuela about mediating the conflict. Crude for April delivery slid 32 cents to settle at $101.91 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.