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Libya: Shadow of Iraq hangs over Western action
22 March 11 01:04 ET

By Andrew North
BBC News, Washington

There was something familiar in the night-time television images of broken concrete and twisted metal from Col Muammar Gaddafi's Tripoli compound - the shadow of Iraq.
The largest military intervention in the Middle East since the Iraq war is now well under way, and to many the goal looks the same - regime change.
Even as the Pentagon was saying the Libyan leader is not a target, American missiles had just struck his heavily protected compound - for a second time in 25 years.
Two weeks ago, US President Barack Obama made his objective clear. Col Gaddafi, he said, "must leave".
But now Operation Odyssey Dawn has begun, the US and its coalition allies say they are simply protecting Libyan civilians and enforcing the no-fly zone, as called for by UN Security Council resolution 1973.
The resolution would never have been passed if it had called for regime change.
But coalition leaders are going out of their way to say Col Gaddafi is not on their hit list - so far.
What they attacked inside his compound, they say, was a military command centre - not his home.
Questions raised
Now US officials have even acknowledged the mercurial Libyan leader could remain in power.
"That's certainly potentially one outcome," says America's senior military officer, Adm Mike Mullen.
It would not be "ideal", acknowledges US Gen Carter Ham, who is overseeing the no-fly zone operation, "but I could envision that."
Mr Obama now says there's a difference between enforcing the UN resolution and his own stated policy of putting an end to Col Gaddafi's 42-year rule.
The US, he says, can pursue that policy on its own - using economic sanctions.
This raises many questions.
Why did the US-led coalition intervene at all, if it's prepared to accept a messy stalemate?
Or did it intervene too late - it's almost a month since the Libyan rebellion began - so making it much harder to topple Col Gaddafi?
As many predicted, air power may not be enough now, especially with the fighting concentrating in urban areas.
Having ruled out ground troops, does this mean providing the rebels with heavy weapons to give them the edge?
Clearly, both Washington and London hope Col Gaddafi will be pushed out from the inside.
True intentions?
It is still early days. But this was supposed to be a quick operation.
With Arab and other voices already accusing the coalition of going beyond its UN mandate, it is understandable that Washington and London are now keen to portray their goals as more limited.
The sight of scores of cruise missiles being fired at Tripoli gave Arab states second thoughts over their backing - despite plenty of prior US warnings that a no-fly zone meant it would attack first.
However much they dislike Col Gaddafi, many Arab leaders worry about the true intentions of Washington and London.
Yet again, they are taking the lead in launching air strikes against a Middle Eastern ruler they were happy to work with just a short time ago - while ignoring other rulers busily putting down their own protests.
However much Mr Obama wanted to be different, he has now joined a long list of American presidents who have resorted to force in the Middle East.
One other reason for caution in US statements about its intentions is the fact that, at least officially, presidents are prohibited from assassinating foreign leaders - because of an executive order issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
That did not, though, prevent him from bombing Col Gaddafi in 1986 - in the same compound hit this weekend - in retaliation for an attack on US troops at a Berlin disco.
Is history about to repeat itself in another way?
UK Prime Minister David Cameron keeps saying this is not another Iraq.
But if the conflict in Libya becomes a stalemate, that is what it could look like - perhaps not the Iraq after 2003, but the 1991 Gulf War.
It would leave the rebels controlling eastern Libya under the protection of Western warplanes and Col Gaddafi hanging on, bloodied but vengeful, in a rump state around Tripoli, pressed by international sanctions.
Twelve years of no-fly zones and sanctions could not dislodge Saddam Hussein - and in the meantime it was the Iraqi people who bore the cost.
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