The deaths of Libyan civilians in NATO air strikes are raising fears that international political support for the mission could weaken, and that Canadians could become reluctant to back it even though there are no soldiers on the ground.
New Gadhafi-regime claims that a NATO strike on Monday had killed 15 civilians, including three children, were rebuffed by alliance military commanders, who said it had hit a military target, a "high-level" command-and-control centre. The attack came a day after the alliance admitted that an air strike on Sunday accidentally hit a residential neighbourhood in the capital. Nine civilians were killed, the Gadhafi government said.
The military mission in Libya that began as the enforcement of a no-fly zone and has escalated to heavy air strikes is now facing a test of international and public support: not because of a high death toll of Western combat troops, as in Afghanistan, but because of another toll that goes with air strikes - civilian deaths of the Libyans whom the mission is mandated to protect.
Canada's role in the Libyan mission is bigger than in the NATO bombing of Serbia in the 1990s; then as now, Canada contributed fighter jets, but this time, the Canadian contribution includes a frigate, support planes and more than 650 troops.
And although debate in the Commons has been muted - both the Liberals and NDP supported the 3½- month extension to the mission - the NDP has said it won't support another extension. Public support could also weaken with news of civilian casualties on the ground.
The stalemate in a war now aimed - in all but the most official words - at ousting Colonel Moammar Gadhafi means that the clock is ticking. The allies are seeking to reach their goal, with the prospect of international and public support unravelling over a hot summer of air strikes.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on Monday that civilian deaths pose a risk to the NATO-led military alliance.
"NATO is endangering its credibility; we cannot risk killing civilians," Mr. Frattini told reporters before an EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg to discuss ways to aid rebels.
The Arab League, which called for the no-fly zone in March, condemned the civilian deaths. "When the Arab League agreed on the idea of having a no-fly zone over Libya it was to protect civilians, but when civilians get killed this has to be condemned with the harshest of statements," said deputy secretary-general Ahmed Ben Helli.
Western nations had seen support from Arab nations as crucial to international intervention, and now face a struggle to keep it intact as Col. Gadhafi clings to power in Tripoli. And among allies, support is being questioned: in the war-weary United States, some Republicans are considering a move this week to cut off spending for the Libya mission.
In Canada, the opposition New Democrats warned that civilian casualties will have an impact on support.
"Yes, it does have an impact on how it's perceived, if there is civilian casualties, absolutely," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar. "That's why there has to be caution, oversight. That's why I think there needs to be strengthening in the oversight and in the communications between the UN, the Arab League, and NATO."
"When you're conducting a bombing campaign, it's inevitable that you are going to kill civilians," said Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, the only MP who voted against extending the Canadian mission in Libya.
If the bombing campaign were to enforce a no-fly zone to protect civilians, Canadians would understand, but now it's part of taking sides in a civil war, Ms. May said.
Josh Zanin, a spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay, said "the goal of the mission is, and will continue to be, the protection of civilians and to stop the Gadhafi regime's attacks on civilians.
"In pursuing this goal, NATO makes every reasonable effort to ensure the safety of civilians."
The Conservative government and the two main opposition parties have stressed that no Canadian ground troops will be sent into Libya - but Mr. Dewar said the fact that NATO's chief tactic is air strikes is why it needs to be extremely cautious to avoid civilian deaths.
"When you're flying at 30,000 feet, and you can only establish so many targets, at some point you have to be cautious about where you're going," he said.
With a report from Reuters