Libya: US pushes key NATO command role

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France, Britain and the United States are all agreed that NATO should play a "key role" in the command structure of allied military operations in Libya, the White House said Tuesday.

But ambiguities remained, with France saying that President Nicolas Sarkozy had agreed with Obama on how NATO command structures would be used to support the coalition but providing no specifics.

NATO has agreed a role in enforcing a UN-mandated arms embargo and no-fly zone on Libya but key members remain divided on whether the alliance should take overall command of the strikes against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

France, whose fighter jets launched the first salvos in the campaign against Kadhafi on Saturday, has resisted handing the baton to NATO, fearing a backlash from the Arab world if the alliance intervenes.

Turkey, an influential Muslim-majority member of NATO, has also displayed little enthusiasm for such a move.

The United States is eager to hand over command of the mission as soon as possible and President Barack Obama has said he expects NATO to play a role in coordinating the next phase of action within days, rather than weeks.

Obama telephoned British Prime Minister David Cameron and Sarkozy on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Libya.

"They reviewed the substantial progress that's been made in terms of halting the advance of Kadhafi's forces on Benghazi as well as the establishment of a no-fly zone," said White House spokesman Ben Rhodes.

They also agreed that "NATO should play a key role in the command structure going forward," said Rhodes, who was traveling with Obama as he began the final stop of a three-nation Latin America tour in El Salvador.

The French presidency said Sarkozy and Obama "agreed on the modalities for using NATO command structures in support of the coalition," but did not say exaclty what role the alliance would play.

In an earlier conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Obama highlighted NATO's "unique multinational command and control capabilities," the White House said.

At their meeting in Brussels, NATO ambassadors agreed to use naval and air power to enforce an arms embargo on Libya and to endorse operational plans to help enforce the no-fly zone.

Diplomats said it would take a few more days for NATO to decide whether to activate its participation in the no-fly zone, or take command of military operations.

US, French and British warplanes and warships have led the strikes against Kadhafi's regime since Saturday, but Britain, Canada, Italy and several other allies want NATO to take command of the operations.

France, which has resisted calls to give NATO control of the mission, called for the creation of a special political committee of foreign ministers from coalition countries to oversee the operations, with Arab participation.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the committee had the support of Britain and would "meet in the coming days in Brussels, London or Paris, and continue to meet regularly to show clearly that political oversight is there".

The alliance said the top operational commander, Admiral James Stavridis, is activating ships and aircraft in the central Mediterranean to enforce the UN-mandated arms embargo.

The NATO forces will monitor, report and, if needed, "interdict vessels suspected of carrying illegal arms or mercenaries", said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

"All allies are committed to meet their responsibilities under the United Nations resolution to stop the intolerable violence against Libyan civilians," Rasmussen said.

Turkey had blocked the approval of NATO operational plans for a no-fly zone over Libya on Sunday, as it criticised the scope of the Western-led operation, which has included strikes on Kadhafi forces.

Germany has also refused to join the intervention in Libya, abstaining from voting for the UN Security Council resolution that approved "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians from Kadhafi forces last week.

The temperature went up a notch on Monday when Rasmussen criticised the French and German positions during a closed-door meeting of NATO envoys, prompting the German and French ambassadors to walk out, NATO sources said.

Frustrated by the lack of decision, Italy warned it could take back control of bases used by the coalition on its territory if NATO did not take over.

© 2011 AFP

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