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NATO fights on though Libya coalition shrinks

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11:21 AM July 30th, 2011

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July 30th, 2011 11:21 AM

BRUSSELS — NATO allies are in a hurry to bring the air war in Libya to a victorious end but are having to carry on with a shrinking alliance after Norway withdrew its jets and Italy pulled an aircraft carrier.

Norway’s departure this weekend leaves the 28-nation military club with combat planes from seven nations instead of eight to finish a job begun four months ago that some hoped would last just weeks.

And with Moamer Kadhafi refusing to step down, allied tactics and diplomatic messages too are under adjustment: the United States, France and Britain indicated in recent days the dictator could stay in Libya if he cedes power.

Despite Norway’s withdrawal, NATO officials insist they can maintain a high tempo of aerial operations, which have averaged more than 100 sorties per day including around 50 missions aimed at hitting targets.

“We have made clear that there has to be a political solution to the crisis, but we have made it equally clear that our military operation will continue for as long as it is needed,” said NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero.

“Kadhafi cannot wait us out,” she told a news conference this week.

Britain has effectively stepped in to fill the gap left by Norway by contributing an extra four Tornado planes and will carry on the mission along with France, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, Italy and the United States.

But British officers have warned that their armed forces risked being overstretched with global commitments in Afghanistan as well as Libya.

Italy, Libya’s former colonial ruler, is scaling back its involvement, withdrawing the aircraft carrier Garibaldi this month while the Senate voted Wednesday to drastically reduce the mission’s budget and number of troops.

Allies appear to be growing impatient of a conflict that the top US officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, acknowledged was stuck in a “stalemate.”

But he voiced optimism the mission will prevail, saying last Monday: “In the long run, I think it’s a strategy that will work… (toward) removal of Kadhafi from power.”

After repeatedly pressing Kadhafi to step down, the United States, France and Britain switched tack in recent days, offering to allow him to remain in Libya if he gives up power — an option the rebels rejected.

“It’s turning into a complete shambles,” Alexis Crow, security analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London, told AFP.

“The single greatest problem for the operation as a whole is this inability to match goals and means and match tactics with strategy,” Crow said.

The allies have never been clear about Kadhafi’s fate, struggling to agree on a common message from the start of the campaign with nations initially reluctant to call for the strongman to step down, she said.

“I am not completely convinced that removing him from power but letting him remain in Libya will fundamentally do a lot of good,” Crow said. “I don’t think that staying on his own soil eliminates the loyalists’ desire to rule.”

NATO’s commitment to the mission faces a key test in September when the operation’s second 90-day mandate comes to an end.

The United States is floating the idea of asking NATO ambassadors to consider an open-ended mandate this time, sources familiar with the discussions told AFP.

“This would put our procedures in tune with our message,” said a senior NATO official. “It would be logical because we say that we will stay as long as it’s necessary.”

A NATO diplomat said an indefinite mandate would be a tough sell as some nations would require parliamentary approval.

“There will be a hot debate,” the diplomat said, adding that the alliance will likely back a renewal of at least 90 days, however, because “what is at stake is the credibility of NATO, so common sense will prevail.”

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