WASHINGTON (Reuters) - NATO has adopted a more aggressive approach to air strikes in Libya, Western officials say, after two months of attacks on Muammar Gaddafi’s government have failed to prompt the defiant leader to resign.
U.S. and European officials told Reuters this week that the targeting by NATO air strikes against sites including military headquarters recently has become more “aggressive.”
A NATO airstrike on a house in Tripoli is believed to have killed Gaddafi’s youngest son and three grandchildren, and there has been speculation about Gaddafi’s whereabouts and health since then.
A White House official said there had been no change in NATO tactics or targeting policy. “There has been no shift from the U.S. perspective,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
“Based on the situation on the ground, they’re going to be targeting command and control facilities, which is part and parcel of our mandate to protect Libyan civilians,” the official said.
NATO, too, has insisted that, in line with the U.N. mandate that authorized the campaign, it is not targeting Gaddafi or other individuals but will go after command sites from which the government orders attacks against civilians.
But another U.S. official indicated there was a conscious effort by NATO military planners to target air strikes closer to where Gaddafi is thought to have been taking shelter — and the Obama administration is privately supporting the intensified strikes.
The more aggressive targeting selection is being crafted and carried out on a day-to-day basis by NATO military commanders.
One European official said that a possible explanation for the targeting of locations closer to Gaddafi is that NATO is running out of potential command and control targets and so is going deeper into its target list.
But NATO risks fracturing its fragile coalition, which includes non-NATO states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, if it is seen as targeting Gaddafi too directly.
That might not be an issue if Gaddafi is killed in a strike on military facilities.
“Everybody agrees that it’s not possible to have Gaddafi around any more,” one NATO diplomat said on condition of anonymity. He said no major fissures in coalition unity had appeared so far.
“As long as you can make an interpretation about this possible targeting within the context of the U.N. security council — targeting for instance Gaddafi’s palace, if you have proof that it’s part of the command-and-control system — you may agree with that.”
The political calculus in Washington, where President Barack Obama is eyeing his 2012 re-election bid and grappling with pressure to cut spending, may also change as time passes and the financial burden of a third war in a Muslim nation grows.
The Libya mission has cost the United States about $750 million so far, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently.
Obama has sought to keep the United States in a supporting role in Libya and U.S. officials have said categorically that they will not put American troops on the ground in Libya.
The international community has sought to tighten the diplomatic vise around Gaddafi as well, and some members of Gaddafi’s government have defected — most recently, apparently, his oil minister.
The White House official said results may come slowly, but suggested Washington was working behind the scenes to gradually fracture Gaddafi’s inner circle.
“When you’re applying diplomatic pressure, it’s a process that often just doesn’t move along as rapidly as one might like,” the official said.