US President Barack Obama insisted Thursday that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi "step down from power and leave," his most explicit statement of support for rebels challenging Gaddafi's four-decade rule in a region convulsed by uprisings against authoritarian regimes. Gaddafi has vowed to stay.
Obama did not rule out establishing a no fly zone over Libya, a move that his Pentagon chief said a day earlier would amount to an act of war because it would require bombing Libya's air defenses. Although Obama said he was considering a full range of options, he emphasized the US role in helping refugees and heading off a humanitarian crisis.
"Let me just be very unambiguous about this. Col. Gaddafi needs to step down from power and leave," Obama said at a White House news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
Obama announced that US military aircraft would play a humanitarian role by helping Egyptians who had fled the chaos in Libya and become stranded in Tunisia. The planes are to fly them from Tunisia back to Egypt. The Pentagon has ordered two Navy warships into the Mediterranean, but Obama did not discuss specific military actions such as providing air cover for rebels.
He offered his most extensive remarks on the Libya crisis on a day when rebels strengthened their hold on the strategic oil installation at Brega after repelling an attempt by Gaddafi loyalists to retake it. Obama said his main focus was on limiting civilian deaths, while acknowledging his fear that the crisis could devolve into deadlock.
"There is a danger of a stalemate that over time could be bloody," he said. "That is something that we are obviously considering." He raised the possibility of Gaddafi hunkering down in the capital of Tripoli while his people suffer from food shortages. Obama said the US and its partners would have to consider how to get food in.
The US administration has been tempering tough talk on Libya with a dose of reality, explaining that even a no-fly zone to control the skies over the country would require a military attack. Two leading senators on defense matters responded Thursday by urging a strong US stance aiding Gaddafi's opposition.
The Pentagon is making it clear it does not want war.
A statement Wednesday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates illustrated the administration's effort to rein in "loose talk" about military options to force Gaddafi from power. It was an acknowledgement that, short of an unlikely military offensive by a US-led coalition, the options for international action to stem the violence are highly limited, even as armed rebels pressed their fight against troops still loyal to Gaddafi.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent, said another option was to provide US air defense weapons to the Libyan rebels and to train them in their use.
- Follow Ynetnews on Facebook