Air Campaign Broadens; Bishops Apprehensive

The ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan strongman, appears to have become the accepted outcome of the international campaign to protect civilians and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, following a meeting in London that gathered NATO leadership and coalition representatives and delegates from more than 40 nations. Some members of the Western coalition went even further. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain suggested that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force in Libya, could be extended to allow arms sales to rebel forces. That expansive interpretation, which appears to contradict a U.N. Security Council resolution in February (Res. 1970) that imposed a Libyan arms embargo, could prove crucial to the outcome of the resistance movement against Qaddafi. After a number of haphazard attacks, poorly trained and equipped opposition forces have crumbled before better trained and, perhaps more important, better armed Qaddafi loyalist battalions.

Pope Benedict XVI appealed on March 27 for a halt to the violence in Libya, and U.S. bishops issued a tentative endorsement of the Obama administration’s use of force in order to “to protect civilians in Libya from their own government.”

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The coalition campaign against forces still loyal to Qaddafi, initially begun to interrupt the fall of the “rebel capital” Benghazi when such an event seemed to promise a massacre of civilians, has taken on the appearance of a strategic campaign on behalf of a revived rebellion. U.S., French and British sorties are going well beyond enforcing a no-fly zone over opposition territory and are directly targeting pro-Qaddafi units that threaten to advance against rebel positions. As a result, the improvised opposition army was briefly able to reclaim nearly all the territory lost to the loyalist units in what appears to be the beginning of a prolonged, seesaw struggle. Denied air support since the no-fly zone was initiated, pro-Qaddafi fighters have now been stripped of tanks and artillery by coalition attacks that have significantly degraded their material superiority over rebel forces.

The change in the tone of the campaign was noted by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who said on March 28 that the expanded air campaign was not sanctioned by U.N.S.C. Resolution 1973. Seeming to confirm the Russian’s suspicion that the coalition had exceeded its mandate, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister David Cameron, in a joint statement released on March 28, called on Qaddafi’s remaining supporters to drop him before it was “too late.”

Pope Benedict called for a suspension of fighting in Libya and the immediate start of a serious dialogue aimed at restoring peace to the North African country. The pope said, “My fear for the safety and well-being of the civilian population is growing, as is my apprehension over how the situation is developing with the use of arms.” The U.S.C.C.B. said the purpose articulated in Resolution 1973 appears to meet the traditional criteria of “just cause” but added that they joined Pope Benedict XVI in following the military action with “great apprehension.”

The pope’s apparent call for a ceasefire was quickly endorsed by North Africa’s Catholic bishops. In a statement released on March 28, signed by Archbishop Vincent Landel of Rabat, Morocco, the bishops acknowledge that the region’s expanding conflict is the result of a “legitimate claim for freedom, justice and dignity, particularly by the younger generations.” But the bishops reaffirmed their opposition to violence and war: “We know that war solves nothing, and when it breaks out, it is just as uncontrollable as the explosion of a nuclear reactor. The first victims,” the bishops said, “are always the poorest and most disadvantaged. Moreover, whether we like it or not, the war in the Near East, and now in the Maghreb, will always be interpreted as ‘a crusade.’”

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