NATO took full command on Sunday of military operations in Libya from a US-led coalition, empowering alliance forces to stage ground strikes to protect civilians threatened by Muammar Qaddafi’s army.
As rebels pushed toward Tripoli after nine days of Western bombings of Qaddafi forces, NATO ambassadors overcame objections from Turkey and France after days of tense talks and agreed to take control of the campaign.
“Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the Qaddafi regime,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. “NATO will implement all aspects of the UN resolution. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Rasmussen said that the operational commander for Operation Unified Protector, Lieutenant--General Charles Bouchard of Canada, was being instructed to “begin executing this operation with immediate effect.”
“Along with its non-NATO partners, NATO will do everything it can to deny any use of air power and it will do so with care and precision to avoid harming the people of Libya,” Bouchard told reporters.
However, alliance officials said that the transfer would take 48 to 72 hours.
The US has been eager to hand off control of the operation. While Britain and Italy wanted NATO to take over, France shied away from alliance control and Turkey voiced concerns about the intervention.
Addressing Ankara’s objections, envoys from NATO’s 28 member states endorsed a three-month military plan including rules of engagement strictly limiting the use of ground strikes to protect civilians and populated areas, diplomats said.
The plan does not call for NATO to intervene in support of the armed rebellion fighting Qaddafi, the diplomats said.
“NATO will always remain impartial. NATO does not take sides,” said a NATO diplomat who asked not to be identified.
The transatlantic organization is already running naval operations to prevent weapons and mercenaries from entering Libya and had also agreed to enforce a no-fly zone to keep Qaddafi’s jets on the ground.
Under Sunday’s agreement, NATO’s role is broadened to strike ground targets such as tanks or artillery — but only if the lives of ordinary Libyans are at stake.
In a landmark resolution a little more than a week ago, the UN approved “all necessary measures” to safeguard civilians from attack, opening the way to the launch of strikes by a coalition led by Britain, France and the US.
Turkey, NATO’s sole predominantly Muslim member, criticized the scope of the Western-led air strikes, vowing to “never point a gun at the Libyan people.”
With decisions taken by unanimous vote at NATO, “the rules of engagement will take into account the sensitivities of all NATO members, including Turkey,” an alliance diplomat said.
A senior US official said some countries had decided they would not participate in “every part” of the mission.
From the outset, the international coalition levered for support from Arab and African states, and late last week regional power Turkey finally backed the no-fly zone and pledged warships to enforce an arms embargo off Libya’s coast.
However, luring Arab nations into action has been slow: Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were alone in pledging fighter jets. Qatari warplanes have flown missions, while six UAE F-16s arrived at a base in Italy on Sunday.
Britain welcomed the handover to NATO, saying it “ensures that partners from the region are able to participate and represents a significant step forward as we plan for the next phase of this vital mission.”
However, as critics query the end-game and exit strategy, another key question to resolve is who will have political control of ongoing military operations.
France said that flying the mission under the NATO flag would alienate Arab allies, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy firing a new broadside on Friday.
“It would be playing into the hands of Colonel Qaddafi to say NATO is taking over,” he said.
He insisted that NATO would merely run day-to-day operations, while political coordination would rest in the hands of a coalition committee.
That row is set to haunt talks in London today between a “contact group” on Libya gathering foreign ministers from more than 35 countries including US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
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