Would the U.S. really bomb the Libyan rebels?

An Obama official claims that the opposition forces would be attacked if they threaten civilians

By Justin Elliott
March 31, 2011 10:38PM (UTC)
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EDITOR'S NOTE: PICTURE TAKEN ON GUIDED GOVERNMENT TOUR A Libyan holds a poster of Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi at a naval military facility damaged by coalition forces air strikes last night in People's Port in eastern Tripoli March 22, 2011. Anti-aircraft fire and explosions reverberated across Tripoli for a third night on Monday and state television said several sites had come under attack in the capital. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah (LIBYA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT POLITICS) (© Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters)

Ever since the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution to protect all civilians in Libya, one of the biggest questions has centered on what would happen if rebels threaten civilians in areas held by Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

We know that the resolution's clause about taking "all necessary measures ... to protect civilians" has already been interpreted incredibly broadly, with the U.S. already providing close air support for the rebels and talking about arming them.


Today Charlie Savage of the Times has an interesting exploration of the question of who qualifies as a civilian, and who gets protection from the U.S. and its allies.

The most striking thing about the piece is the claim, by both an anonymous Obama administration official and a named NATO spokeswoman, that the allies would bomb the rebels if they attacked civilians:

“We’ve been conveying a message to the rebels that we will be compelled to defend civilians, whether pro-Qaddafi or pro-opposition,” said a senior Obama administration official. “We are working very hard behind the scenes with the rebels so we don’t confront a situation where we face a decision to strike the rebels to defend civilians.”


Oana Lungescu, the senior NATO spokeswoman, emphasized that NATO was taking action because Qaddafi’s forces were attacking Libyan civilians, including shelling cities with artillery. She said that if the rebels do likewise, the organization will move to stop them, too, because the United Nations Security Council resolution “applies to both sides.”

I'm skeptical that NATO or the U.S. would actually bomb the rebels if they attacked civilians. But if this really is the policy, and if one follows it to its logical conclusion, could there be a situation in which we're bombing rebels who are wielding weapons we gave them?

Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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