NATO to run Libya no-fly zone

By David Brunnstrom and Paul Taylor

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO countries agreed on Thursday to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilians against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, but fell short of a final agreement to take full command of all military operations in the North African state.

NATO officials said a decision was expected on Sunday on whether to broaden the mandate to take full command, including over attacks on ground targets to protect civilian areas under threat from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters after four days of tough negotiations the U.S.-led alliance’s new mandate did not extend beyond enforcing an arms embargo and no-fly zone, although it could act in self-defense.

American officials, who have sought to convince a wary public that the Libya operation is not the start of another long, expensive, U.S.-led war in a Muslim nation, insisted a “political agreement, a fundamental agreement” had been reached with all 28 NATO member nations. That agreement is for NATO to take command and control of all aspects of the military mission, including protection of civilians.

“That includes the arms embargo enforcement, which has already been executed, and it includes the no-fly zone, which is executed as of today, and it includes the protection of civilians and civilian areas given the actual threat of attack,” said a senior U.S. official.

“That latter part we are still completing the operational planning and we expect to have that done by this weekend,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Rasmussen said talks were continuing on a broader NATO role. “At this moment, there will still be a coalition operation and a NATO operation,” he said.

NATO officials said if all 28 states agreed to expand NATO’s role, it would give the alliance political control of military operations although it would “take into account” the guidance of a high-level platform to include Arab states expected to be established at a London conference on Tuesday.

This would represent a compromise between the positions of NATO members France and Turkey, who have held up a deal.

U.S. officials said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had spoken to both French and Turkish officials and they had signed off on the political agreement for the full NATO takeover.

“That is the big, big political shift. You may have heard some countries said this is not something they should do. Now every country agrees this is something that NATO should do,” the U.S. official said.

STEERING GROUP

France, which launched the air campaign with Britain and the United States on Saturday, had argued NATO should provide its command structure while an ad hoc steering group of coalition members, including the Arab League, exercises political control.

France argued that having NATO in full charge would erode Arab support because of U.S. unpopularity in the Arab world. Turkey had wanted to be able to use its NATO veto to limit allied operations against Libyan infrastructure and avoid casualties among Muslim civilians that it fears could result from bombing raids.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters that these fears had been addressed and command of military operations would be transferred completely to NATO and that there would be a single command and control.

His comments came after a four-way telephone conference between Clinton and the foreign ministers of Turkey, France and Britain.

NATO officials said alliance operations to enforce the no-fly zone were expected to get under way in 48-72 hours. The NATO operation would be commanded by U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear, operations commander of the coalition mission.

President Barack Obama, trying to extricate Washington from wars in Muslim nations Iraq and Afghanistan, has said Washington wants to hand over responsibility for the Libyan campaign within days.

The effort got a boost as French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the United Arab Emirates would contribute 12 planes to the Libya coalition force, significantly increasing Arab participation in the campaign.

A French diplomatic source said Paris had secured agreement for a “political strategy commission that will bring together all the contributing states.” It would meet in London on Tuesday and provide the political direction for operations in Libya.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Jon Boyle and Christopher Wilson)

NATO to run Libya no-fly zone