Washington – Still struggling to catch up with fast-moving events throughout the Middle East, the administration of President Barack Obama Tuesday joined a growing international chorus in denouncing efforts by the Libyan government to crush a growing uprising against the 42-year reign of Muammar Al-Gaddafi.
“The world is watching the situation in Libya with alarm,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a statement released late in the day, a government holiday.
“The government of Libya has a responsibility to respect the universal rights of the people, including the right to free expression and assembly. Now is the time to stop this unacceptable bloodshed,” the statement asserted. “We are working urgently with friends and partners around the world to convey this message to the Libyan government.”
Washington’s statement followed by nearly half a day a stronger statement issued by the European Union’s (EU) 27 foreign ministers, who were meeting in Brussels. They said the Council of Foreign Ministers “condemns the ongoing repression against demonstrators in Libya and deplores the violence and death of civilians.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who reportedly spoke with Gaddafi early Monday, also demanded a halt to the violence, according to spokesman Martin Nesirky. Meanwhile several senior Libyan diplomats, including its deputy ambassador to the U.N., resigned their posts to protest their government’s repression. The U.N. Security Council is expected to take up Libya Tuesday morning.
“We find it impossible to stay silent,” Libya’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told reporters at U.N. headquarters, accusing the government of “genocide”. “The Libyan mission will be in the service of the Libyan people rather than in the service of the regime,” he said.
The sixth day of what has quickly exploded into a general uprising against Gaddafi – particularly in Benghazi and other eastern cities which have reportedly fallen to anti-government protestors in bitter fighting that has reportedly resulted in several hundred deaths since Saturday – appeared to have taken Washington, which is already struggling to deal with several other crises across the region, by surprise.
Until Sunday, when it became clear that Gaddafi may not survive the spreading unrest, the Obama administration had been focused on how it could defuse rapidly escalating tensions in Bahrain and Yemen, which, unlike Libya, are closely allied to Washington; and considered, respectively, critical to protecting U.S. interests in the Gulf and defeating Al-Qaeda.
It was also pre-occupied with the evolving political situation in Egypt a week after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and how to contain the diplomatic backlash – notably from Saudi Arabia, which was reportedly already furious over Washington’s criticism of Bahrain’s lethal crackdown last week against Shia demonstrators – provoked by its veto Friday of a U.N. Security Council resolution declaring Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem “illegal”.
As part of those efforts, the administration had sent Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, William Burns, to Cairo, where he met with senior Egyptian officials and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa Monday and is likely to stay for an emergency Arab League meeting on the situation in Libya in the Egyptian capital Tuesday, according to Al-Jazeera.
At the same time, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, began a week-long tour of the Gulf in Riyadh Sunday where the situation in Bahrain – which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and is linked by a causeway to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province – was the top agenda item.
The Saudis, who have given strong backing to Bahrain’s own Sunni royal family, are reportedly very worried that any resolution of the current crisis that could bring the majority Shi’a population in its tiny neighbour to power could encourage unrest among Shiites in the oil-rich province.
Mullen will travel to Qatar Monday and will travel from there to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and two other countries that host strategically located U.S. military facilities – Djibouti, which also saw anti-government demonstrations this weekend, and Kuwait. Pentagon officials said he might also visit Bahrain, depending on how the political situation there evolves over the next several days.
Of all of the challenges to autocratic rule that has swept through the region – from Algeria to Iran – over the six weeks, the response by the Libyan regime appears to have been the most violent by far.
Several hundred people are believed to have been killed in Benghazi over the weekend as anti-government demonstrators, apparently backed eventually by army units, took control of the city. Al-Jazeera reported that at least another 250 people were killed in Tripoli as fighting spread to the capital Monday. Most international communication links between Libya and the outside world have been cut.
Gaddafi himself appeared briefly on Libyan television late Monday night to counter rumours that he had fled the country, while his son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, warned that the army had been ordered to “impose security and get things back to normal, whatever the price.”
“Instead of 84 dead people, we will weep over hundreds of thousands of dead,” he declared ominously. “Rivers of blood will flow.”
Those remarks, as well as statements of two defecting Libyan Air Force pilots that they had been ordered to bomb demonstrators, have spurred calls here – even from analysts who have praised the administration for its rhetorical and diplomatic restraint in dealing with the crises in Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain – for Washington to become much more assertive in dealing with Libya.
“It is time for the United States, NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League to act forcefully to try to prevent the already bloody situation from degenerating into something much worse,” wrote Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University, on his foreignpolicy.com blog Monday. He warned that, left alone, the bloodshed could reach Bosnia- or even Rwanda-like proportions.
“This is not a peaceful democracy protest movement which the United States can best help by pressuring allied regimes from above, pushing for long-term and meaningful reform, and persuading the military to refrain from violence,” Lynch said, suggesting, among other things, that the U.S. or NATO declare a “no-fly zone” over Libya to prevent Gaddafi from using airpower to subdue the rebellion or seek immediate Security Council sanctions against the regime.
“It’s gone well beyond that already, and this time I find myself on the side of those demanding more forceful action before it’s too late.”
Lynch appeared to be referring to earlier appeals by several neo-conservative commentators. Elliott Abrams, President George W. Bush’s top Mideast adviser, urged Obama to call explicitly for Gaddafi’s ouster. “Gaddafi must become an instant pariah for this continuing and unlimited use of deadly force against his people,” he wrote on the National Review’s website.
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