“Squeeze” put on Gaddafi to remove him

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and its NATO allies are stepping up military operations against Muammar Gaddafi, hoping for a final “squeeze” to drive him from power — or possibly kill him — a senior U.S. official said on Friday.

The comments, made on condition of anonymity, follow days of some of the heaviest bombing of the three-month-old war and indicated a shift in Washington, which has previously spoken of a stalemate and has fought shy of making Gaddafi a target.

The United States is still officially abiding by a U.N. mandate which formally limits NATO to protecting civilians.

The allies have said repeatedly that the 69-year-old leader must make way for a new, democratic administration but have insisted that killing him is not the object of their bombing.

The U.S. official said, however, that “no one would shed a tear” if Gaddafi were to die in one of the many attacks, some with bunker-busting bombs, on facilities across Libya.

“Everyone … wants Gaddafi to go,” the official said, explaining why NATO forces have been conducting a “major effort against (Gaddafi’s) command and control facilities”.

U.S. officials say they believe the conflict is nearing an “end-game” — a phrase notably employed by an official traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a meeting of the allies in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

After that meeting, Australia’s foreign minister forecast that Gaddafi’s ousting “may come sooner” than many had expected.

Previously, U.S. officials had assessed the Libyan conflict as an indefinite stalemate, due to the relatively strong capabilities of government forces when compared to rebel forces whose capabilities have been seen as minimal to dire.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin told reporters on Friday that Libya operations were not stalled.

“They are not predicting a specific length of time, but it’s not a stalemate,” Levin said after a closed-door briefing with Pentagon officials. “I’m satisfied that Gaddafi’s military has been severely degraded, that politically he’s been significantly weakened, that NATO operations are going well.”

The key was to keep up the momentum, Levin said, echoing comments in Europe by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that some NATO countries needed to participate more.

Despite some vocal critics of the U.S. role in the Libyan conflict, Levin said he didn’t think a majority of senators opposed it. “I think there is not a clear sentiment here to stop our support of the Libyan operation,” he said.

House of Representatives lawmakers voted last week to call on the Obama administration to explain its strategy. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, wrote to Clinton this week reminding her that the House expected answers from the administration by June 16.