BRUSSELS – NATO’s top decision-making body is likely to expand its air mission over Libya on Sunday to take over command of U.S.-led air strikes against Moammar Gadhafi’s military.
After nearly a week of deliberations, the North Atlantic Council agreed Friday that NATO should enforce a no-fly zone in keeping with a U.N. Security Council mandate. But the decision to also allow air strikes — which the United States-led international force has been conducting since last week — was postponed until today’s meeting to allow the 28 national envoys to consult with their capitals.
Washington has been eager to hand off responsibility for air strikes to the alliance, whose military staff have already drawn up the necessary operational plans. An official who spoke under the usual condition of anonymity said the council may issue an order to execute those plans late Sunday or during a follow-on meeting on Monday.
The air strikes are intended to protect civilians from Gadhafi’s forces. However, they have also tipped the balance away from his regular military to the lightly armed rebels, although the two sides remain at stalemate in key cities.
The U.N. authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power
NATO expects to start enforcing the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone on Sunday or Monday, as well as coordinating naval patrols in the Mediterranean to enforce a U.N. arms embargo against Gadhafi’s forces.
A Canadian three-star general, Charles Bouchard, is expected to take charge. He will report to an American admiral, Samuel Locklear, commander of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples.
NATO has significant experience in such operations. It’s warplanes successfully enforced a no-fly zone over Bosnia in the early 1990s and bombed Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999 in an effort to end crackdowns on ethnic Albanian civilians.
Naples is one of NATO’s two operational headquarters. The other, Brunssum in the Netherlands, is responsible for the war in Afghanistan.