West seeks to nail down NATO role in Libya

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Western powers struggled Friday to finesse how to transfer political and military control of the Libya campaign to NATO as France insisted on keeping the alliance out of decision-making.

NATO states have agreed to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya but have yet to decide whether to take over all military operations from a US-led coalition that has fired a barrage of missiles on Moamer Kadhafi's forces.

France argues that political control of the campaign should rest in the hands of a steering committee of coalition countries, claiming that flying the mission under the NATO flag would alienate Arab allies.

At NATO headquarters, military planners were rapidly drawing up plans to take over the broader mission with the aim of getting them ready for a decision by ambassadors of the 28-nation alliance on Sunday, NATO officials said.

Until the alliance agrees to take over all operations, NATO's task will be limited to preventing Kadhafi's jets from flying while the coalition will continue to target artillery on the ground.

The United States has been eager to quickly hand over control of the mission, and most NATO allies say the alliance should take over.

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday that the NATO role would be limited to orchestrating day-to-day operations, with a contact group of coalition nations that will meet in London on Tuesday to take the political lead.

"Decisions are taken by the political coordination, decisions to conduct strikes are taken by national authorities, and NATO splits the (flight) slots and missions, and discusses the goals proposed by the political coordination," he said at the end of a two-day EU summit.

But a NATO official said it would be impossible for the 28-nation military organisation to separate its political and military functions.

The relationship between NATO's political decision-making council and the military "will never, ever be broken," the official said, though the contact group's input would be taken into consideration by the alliance.

The debate over political control came after the alliance finally convinced Turkey, NATO's sole Muslim member and Middle East high-flier, to back the no-fly zone on Thursday after days of sometimes heated discussions.

After his country was irked for not being invited to a summit in Paris that preceded the air strikes last Saturday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the satisfaction was a reverse for France.

"Paris has started to be sidelined. I found this pretty positive especially for the current process in Libya," Erdogan said.

While Turkey backed the no-fly zone and pledged warships to enforce an arms embargo off Libya's coast, luring Arab nations into action has been slow, with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates alone in pledging fighter jets.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been working the phone for days already to bring more Arab partners into the campaign, an alliance official said, noting that NATO has long-standing partnerships with Middle East nations.

Efforts to enlist support from Africa too appeared mired as Kadhafi's longtime friends on the continent launched their own peace bid, with the African Union inviting Libya's rival camps to ceasefire talks Friday in Addis Ababa.

"The air exclusion zone, more or less, the aim has been achieved," said AU commission chief Jean Ping.

"That is done. What is the next step? There are disagreements, there are quarrels" between coalition members, he added. "When I ask: what is the next stage? Do you have a road map? I see they do not."

As the UN-mandated campaign to protect civilians using "all necessary measures" enters its seventh day, the endgame remains unclear, the exit strategy elusive.

France's defence chief Friday said he hoped allied military operations in Libya would last a matter of "weeks" and hopefully not "months".

"I doubt that it will be (over) in days, I think it will be weeks, and I hope it won't be in months," Admiral Edouard Guillaud said in a radio interview.

"There will not be, strictly speaking, a situation of getting bogged down militarily because obviously the solution is political," he said. "It is now a matter of finding political solutions, but that's not my domain."

© 2011 AFP

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