Libya could descend into civil war unless Moammar Gadhafi quits, the U.S. said Tuesday, its demand for his departure intensifying pressure on the longtime leader after news of Western military preparations. But Gadhafi remained defiant, dispatching forces to a Western border area amid fears that the most violent Arab revolt may grow bloodier and spark a humanitarian crisis. His son, Saif al-Islam, warned the West against launching military action to topple Gadhafi, and said his father would not step down or go into exile. “We live here, we die here,” he said. In Moscow, a Kremlin source suggested Gadhafi should step down, calling him a “living political corpse.” In prepared testimony to U.S. lawmakers in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “Libya could become a peaceful democracy or it could face protracted civil war.”
The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said Washington would apply pressure on Gadhafi until he bows out, working to stabilize oil prices and avert a humanitarian crisis. She stopped short of saying the Obama administration was ready to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Monday, the U.S. said it was moving ships and planes closer to Libya. The destroyer USS Barry moved through the Suez Canal Monday and into the Mediterranean. Two amphibious assault ships are expected to go through the canal early Wednesday. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé sounded a note of caution, saying military intervention in Libya would not happen without a clear U.N. mandate.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said it was unacceptable that “Colonel Gadhafi can be murdering his own people using airplanes and helicopter gunships.” General James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, said imposing a no-fly zone would be a “challenging” operation that would mean actual attack. “It would be a military operation, it wouldn’t be just telling people not to fly airplanes,” he said. Analysts said Western leaders are in no mood to rush into conflict after the troubled, drawn-out involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Rebel fighters claimed the balance of the conflict was swinging their way. “Our strength is growing and we are getting more weapons. We are attacking checkpoints,” said Yousef Shagan, a spokesman in Zawiya, only 50 kilometers from Tripoli.
A rebel army officer in the eastern city of Ajdabiya said rebel units were becoming more organized. “All the military councils of Free Libya are meeting to form a unified military council to plan an attack on Gadhafi security units, militias and mercenaries,” Captain Faris Zwei said. Rebels guarding a munitions store near Ajdabiya said they feared a direct hit by Gadhafi’s warplanes could cause destruction for miles around. But despite the widespread collapse of Gadhafi’s writ, his forces were fighting back in some regions. Mohammad, a resident of rebel-held Misrata, said: “Only a [pro-Gaddafi] battalion remains at the city’s air base but they appear to be willing to negotiate safe exit out of the air base. We are not sure if this is genuine or just a trick to attack the city again.”
Across the country, tribal leaders, officials, military officers and army units have defected to the rebels. Sanctions will squeeze his access to funds. Tripoli is a clear Gadhafi stronghold, but even in the capital, loyalties are divided. Many on the streets Tuesday expressed loyalty but one man who described himself as a military pilot said: “One hundred percent of Libyans don’t like him.”