London Dilemma: Two Ways to Go After Gaddafi

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Stefan Rousseau /AFP / Getty Images

British Prime Minister David Cameron (C) listens to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (L) at the opening of the London Conference on Libya, in London,March 29, 2011.

The 10-day-old coalition waging military strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's forces converged in London on Tuesday for the first time since it began bombing Libya on March 19, in order to thrash out how the campaign could edge, push or coax Gaddafi out of power after nearly 42 years of stifling dictatorship.

In a frenzied round of closed-door meetings, hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron, officials from across Europe and parts of the Arab world attempted to bolster the Libyan opposition's political legitimacy and to clarify how to hone their strategy for Libya, now that NATO has agreed to take over command of the military operation. A new strategy for the Western and Arab countries of the coalition has become increasingly urgent this week, as Gaddafi's forces withdraw to the relative safety of built-up (and more densely civilian) areas in cities like Sert and Tripoli, which could be beyond the effective reach of Western air attacks. By day's end, British Foreign Minister William Hague told reporters the group had "widened and deepened" the coalition, including forming a "contact group" to coordinate military and humanitarian efforts, and which will next meet in Qatar.

Ten days after French President Nicolas Sarkozy dispatched the first jets to bomb Libya, the mood among the delegates seemed confident and relaxed, as though the brunt of the mission had already been accomplished. Hague said that had it not been for the U.N. resolution on March 17 that established a no-fly zone, Gaddafi would certainly have overrun the rebel headquarters of Benghazi and the western city of Misrata, "with great loss and catastrophic humanitarian consequences." Said Hague: "We have achieved a great deal and we have saved many lives."

Yet the coalition seemed neither closer to determining an end point for its operation, nor Gaddafi's rule itself. "We believe he must go," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in London on Monday evening. "We are working with the international community to achieve this outcome. He will have to make that decision, and as far as we know, that decision has not been made." She said a political solution for Libya could "leaving the country."

How Gaddafi finally gives up power remains one of the most divisive issues the coalition now faces. Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, whose country is Libya's biggest energy customer and its closest European neighbor, has for days floated the idea of arranging exile in Africa for Gaddafi, brokered by the African Union. "Gaddafi must understand that it would be an act of courage to say: 'I understand that I have to go,'" Frattini told reporters in Rome on Monday. However, the gathering of officials from 36 countries around the gleaming long conference table did not include those best placed to urge Gaddafi to either surrender or go into exile. Those would be his fellow African leaders. The African Union, which represents 53 countries and of which Gaddafi was the rotating president two years ago, had opted to stay away. An Italian diplomat told Reuters during the conference that the decision was a "missed opportunity."

Pitted against the exile idea is a move supported by France, Britain and the U.S. to have Gaddafi stand trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The prosecutor's office of the court is believed already to be gathering evidence for a possible indictment of crimes against humanity, relating to the deaths of about 450 unarmed protesters in Benghazi and other cities in eastern Libya in mid-February, during the days before the rebels took up arms. If an indictment is handed down quickly, "all countries would have an obligation to cooperate," Heba Mourayef, Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch in Cairo, told TIME on Monday. That could greatly complicate an exile plan for Gaddafi.

In a measure of how fast events have moved in the past 10 days, Cameron, Hague and Clinton began their day Tuesday by meeting with the Libyan rebels' choice as interim Prime Minister, Mahmoud Jibril, a former U.S.-trained academic, in order to discuss what kind of country the opposition wants. Around noon, the rebels' Interim National Council circulated a two-page document to delegates entitled "A vision of a Democratic Libya," its manifesto for a post-Gaddafi country. Its principles sounded much like the U.S. constitution: Guarantees for free political organizations, freedom of speech and religion, and the right to vote in free elections. "We are looking for a political process and that is why we are here," said the council's spokesman Mahmoud Shamman in a press conference. "We are asking all the governments to start thinking about how we are going to make it," he says. "One thing we are sure of: We aren't going to allow Gaddafi or his family to be part of the process."