On a day when Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's forces again launched withering attacks against rebels using warplanes, tanks and artillery, U.S. officials and foreign diplomats said Wednesday that the carnage hadn't reached a tipping point necessary for a Western military response.
Beginning Thursday, NATO defense ministers will meet for two days in Brussels, to determine whether and under what circumstances to impose a no-fly zone to stop Kadafi's air attacks. Some Arab states have backed a no-fly zone, but there is no consensus and such a plan could take some time to implement.
Western officials have expressed concern that a no-fly zone would not turn the tide of the fighting. But diplomats said that if the Libyan government escalates attacks on civilians, there is strong support in many NATO capitals for such a move.
The Obama administration and its allies prefer to first get the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. But they may be willing to endorse the step without it, provided there is support from such organizations as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Arab League and the African Union. U.S. and European officials fear without such support, any Western-led intervention could provoke a negative reaction in Arab nations.
It's unlikely that NATO will reach a decision on a no-fly zone in the meetings, said diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity about the sensitive discussions. France has said it will not support such a mission without Security Council approval, but permanent members China and Russia are balking.
Opposition also remains in Turkey, and German officials have told other officials privately that they too are opposed to it, the diplomats said.
There have been mixed signals from the Arab League, with some members saying they welcome a no-fly zone, and others, including Algeria and Syria, against it. Syrian officials privately have indicated that they may be willing to yield, the diplomats said.
Also up for discussion at NATO is whether to provide humanitarian assistance by air or sea to rebel-held towns near the borders with Egypt and Tunisia. Western countries are eager to approve those steps, and diplomats said they expect announcements of additional help soon.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is among the officials attending the NATO meetings. Gates, who has expressed concerns about U.S. military action against Kadafi, is not opposed to using force, but wants to explore the potential consequences of intervening, his spokesman said Wednesday.
Some members of Congress continued to call for a more aggressive response.
"They are pleading for us to enact a no-fly zone," said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. "If it is our national policy, as the president has declared, that Kadafi must go, then wouldn't it makes sense that we would prevent people from being massacred from the air?"
U.S. and European governments are engaged in outreach to rebel leaders to try to determine their goals, and whether they can collaborate with the West.
In a sign that the rebels' National Transitional Council is gaining wider recognition, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is to meet Thursday in Paris with two council members assigned responsibility for foreign affairs, Mahmood Jibril and Ali Issawi.
Gene A. Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was in Rome and Cairo over the weekend to meet with representatives of the council, and also with relatives of the Libyan king who was deposed by Kadafi in 1969. The king had strong support among the tribes in eastern Libya, and Western officials hope to be able to use members of the former royal family to open channels with tribal leaders, diplomats said.
Obama met Wednesday with top national security officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The administration hopes, through "messaging and policy," to isolate Kadafi both internationally and within Libya, said a senior White House official speaking on condition of anonymity.
"What you want in this situation is for the people around Kadafi to continue to desert him and turn on him," the official said. "That's the best bet. If you're looking for the outcome you want — which is for him to leave — the best way to effect that outcome is for his people to peel off."
Analysts and retired Air Force officers say a no-fly zone over Libya could be difficult to enforce without U.S. involvement. It would require hundreds of fighter aircraft and refueling tankers and could exceed the capabilities of Britain and France, which have been the most vocal NATO governments calling for an international response.
Even with the U.S., it would be no small task, Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos told Congress on Tuesday.
Libya's air defenses would pose only a "modest problem, Amos said, but "there are several things that give the enemy an enormous advantage."
"One is the ground movement of forces, vehicles, military on the ground. It's a very complex environment where the Kadafi forces are predominantly located."
The White House also must weigh the risk of getting drawn into a lengthy civil war, a possibility even if a no-fly zone were to deter Libyan airstrikes. A Libyan opposition website called Shuruk, for example, said Wednesday that the weapons at the rebels' disposal were no match for the tanks and artillery of Kadafi's forces.
In 1991, the U.S. imposed a no-fly zone in northern Iraq to protect Iraqi Kurds who had risen up against Saddam Hussein, creating an autonomous Kurdish enclave that persisted through the 2003 invasion. The U.S. also established a no-fly zone in southern Iraq in August 1992, but only after Hussein used helicopter gunships to massacre tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims.
In 1995, a NATO no-fly zone in Bosnia did not stop the massacre at Srebrenica, in which Serbs killed about 8,000 Bosnians.
Cloud reported from Brussels, and Dilanian and Richter from Washington. Times staff writers Peter Nicholas and Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.