BY WILLIAM IDE – Several prominent U.S. senators on Sunday stepped up their push for a no-fly zone over Libya and downplayed Pentagon concerns about its risks.
Democrat John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CBS television’s “Face the Nation” program that the United States and its allies should plan to set up a no-fly zone over Libya. “[We should] prepare a no-fly zone in conjunction with our allies, not implement it. Certainly, [the] first hope would be, if it were called on, to be done only in the context of international agreement and sanction,” he said.
Kerry said the last thing the United States should consider is military intervention in Libya. But Kerry added he does not believe that establishing a no-fly zone crosses that line. “We don’t want troops on the ground; they don’t want troops on the ground. That would be counterproductive. I think there are a number things we can do in between that and we need to do them,” he said.
In comments to lawmakers last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said a move to suppress Libyan air forces would begin with an attack on Libya to destroy the country’s air defenses.
Pentagon officials have also said that setting up a no-fly zone would be an extraordinarily complex operation.
But Senator Kerry has a different view. “It’s not a big air force [i.e., the Libyan Air Force]. We are not talking about this gargantuan kind of force that we face. But more importantly, I would only consider it’s implementation if [Moammar] Gadhafi himself were using it as a means of terror, as a means of massacring large numbers of civilians. And I think it is only then that the global community would say, ‘Uh-oh, we’ve got to do something’,” he said.
Kerry added that the United States could bomb Libyan airports and runways, making them unusable.
John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told ABC television’s “This Week” program that setting up a no-fly zone would send a message to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and encourage rebels, who are outgunned in the air.
“Their air assets are not large. Their air defenses are somewhat antiquated and this would send a signal to Gadhafi that President [Obama] is serious when he says we need for Gadhafi to go,” he said.
Other U.S. lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell, are calling for consideration of a no-fly zone as well as other measures, including aiding and arming rebels who are fighting against Moammar Gadhafi.
Senator John McCain says the United States can assist in several ways. “[W]ith humanitarian, intelligence, providing them with some training and other things that we could do as they form up a provisional government in Benghazi,” he said.
On Sunday, the United Nations called on Libya to grant it immediate access to the rebel-held western city of Misrata, following reports of fighting and deaths there. The world body called on all sides to ensure that civilians are protected from harm.
Protests against Mr. Gadhafi erupted last month, with demonstrators calling for an end to his 42-year rule. The Libyan leader has refused to step down, saying he expects to die a “martyr.”