Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates on March 1 played down the possibility of American military intervention in Libya, saying that there was no agreement within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) about the use of force and that now was not the time for the United States to be entering into another war in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, in a Pentagon news conference with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Gates said he had ordered an amphibious assault ship, the Kearsarge, and an amphibious transport dock ship, the Ponce, to the Mediterranean. He said about 400 Marines were en route to the Mediterranean “in support of the Kearsarge,” although it was unclear whether they would be aboard the ship or stationed elsewhere in the region.

“We're obviously looking at a lot of options and contingencies,” Mr. Gates said. But both Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen appeared to pull back from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's blunt comments on February 28 and March 1 that imposing a no-flight zone over Libya was under “active consideration” among the United States and its allies. Such a zone — in which Libyan air force aircraft would be denied permission to operate, or be shot down — would effectively keep the government led by Col. Muammar el-Qadhafi from strafing and dropping bombs on protesters seeking to overthrow his rule.

Admiral Mullen said that a no-flight zone was “an extraordinarily complex operation to set up,” an assessment shared by Gen. James N. Mattis, who oversees American military operations in the Middle East as the head of United States Central Command. General Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 1 that setting up a no-flight zone would be “challenging” and would first require disabling Libya's air defence system, presumably with airstrikes.

Mr. Gates said, “If we move additional assets, what are the consequences of that for Afghanistan, for the Persian Gulf?” he said. “And what other allies are prepared to work with us in some of these things?”

In his most pointed comment, Mr. Gates said that “we also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East.” About 50,000 United States troops are now in Iraq and about 1,00,000 in Afghanistan.

Mr. Gates said that the Kearsarge, the Ponce and the 400 Marines would be in the region for humanitarian relief and potential emergency evacuations from Libya. — © New York Times News Service

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