Global condemnation of the increasingly violent regime of Moammar Gadhafi gives the United States a green light to intervene against the Libyan dictator, and President Obama Wednesday asked his top national security staff to draw up a list of options.
They could range from armed U.S. combat air patrols to shut down Gadhafi's military operations to freezing Gadhafi's bank accounts and other punitive sanctions.
In his first public response to the Libyan crisis since Friday, Obama said the "suffering and bloodshed is outrageous and is unacceptable.'' And echoing past commanders-in-chief
who have issued ultimatums before taking action, Obama declared in a brief statement at the White House Wednesday evening: "This violence must stop.''
It showed no sign of stopping. In the Libyan capital of Tripoli, armed pro-Gadhafi thugs and mercenaries attacked demonstrators Wednesday in violence that has killed as many as 1,000 people and injured many more across the country, according to accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch
and other organizations.
But Gadhafi's military continued to crumble. The two-man crew of an SU-22 strike fighter sent to bomb demonstrators in the eastern city of Benghazi Wednesday flew over the city and ejected safely, according to accounts from Libyan newspapers taken over by demonstrators.
Benghazi, along with Tobruk and other eastern Libyan cities, were reported to be controlled by demonstrators along with defecting units of the Libyan security forces. The western Libyan city of Misurata was taken over by anti-Gadhafi demonstrators, and army officers stationed there issued a statement pledging "total support for the protesters,'' al Jazeera reported Wednesday.
White House officials said Obama had been reluctant to intervene publicly as the Libyan crisis intensified for fear of jeopardizing the safety of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Europeans and Asians stuck in Libya. "We are doing everything we can to protect American citizens,'' Obama said Wednesday. "That is my highest priority.'' A huge ferry sent to evacuate Americans from Tripoli was held up there temporarily Wednesday night because of bad weather. Tripoli's international airport was virtually shut down, authorities said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said many Europeans were stranded in Tripoli with no way to leave. He described the security situation there as "worsening'' and said there were "many indications of the structure of the state collapsing.''
Even as crowds of American families waited to be carried to safety, Obama was said to be encouraged by the strong positions against Gadhafi taken by the U.N. Security Council, the European Union, the Arab League, the African Union
, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and other international organizations.
"The world is watching,'' Obama declared. He said the Libyan government "must be held accountable'' for violating international norms and "every standard of common decency.''
Human rights, including the right to free speech, freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to determine one's own destiny, "are not negotiable,'' the president said.
To back up his strong words, Obama said he has asked his staff "to prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis,'' including both unilateral operations and actions that could be taken in concert with others or through international organizations such as the United Nations.
U.S. air combat patrols over Libya could be flown by squadrons based in Europe. The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise is in the north Arabian Sea and would require a transit through the Suez Canal. The U.S. mounted similar operations over Iraq, in Operation Southern Watch
, for 12 years before the 2003 invasion, flying continuously to deter Saddam Hussein and to degrade Iraq's air defenses.
The Su-22 jets flown by Libya's air force are more than four decades old and are no match for American aircraft. Two Su-22s were shot down by Navy F-14s in a confrontation over Libya's Gulf of Sidra in 1981.
Some analysts suggested that Gadhafi might attempt to sabotage the Libyan oil fields in a final act of fury. One option for the United States would be to assist an international, or Arab, security and operations force to protect the oil facilities.
It also seemed likely that the United States, acting under U.N. Security Council authority, would enact economic sanctions and banking restrictions on Gadhafi and members of his family and immediate entourage.