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Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, NATO commander of the international military operation in Libya, gestures as he meets journalists at NATO headquarters, in Bagnoli, Naples, Italy, Tuesday, April 26, 2011. Bouchard has rejected a call for a ceasefire. (Salvatore Laporta/AP)
Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, NATO commander of the international military operation in Libya, gestures as he meets journalists at NATO headquarters, in Bagnoli, Naples, Italy, Tuesday, April 26, 2011. Bouchard has rejected a call for a ceasefire. (Salvatore Laporta/AP)

Campbell Clark

Cracks showing in NATO's Libya strategy Add to ...

NATO's military strategy in Libya is to press on, keep firing, until the people of Tripoli rise up against Moammar Gadhafi. But countries that backed the intervention are showing doubts about the plan.

The cracks are now clearly visible. Italy, a key NATO ally, called for a ceasefire to deliver aid, but the alliance, and its military commander, Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, said the air strikes must go on.

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It is one of several signs the mission may have little time before it reaches a tipping point between hope and Plan B. The hope is that air strikes can hit Colonel Gadhafi's regime so hard that it cannot stop a revolt in the capital, Tripoli. Plan B will have to be a push for a negotiated settlement and ceasefire.

On Wednesday, Italy's Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini called for the "immediate suspension" of hostilities to set up aid corridors. "The humanitarian end of military operations is essential to allow for immediate aid," he said.

But at his headquarters in Naples, Gen. Bouchard argued that only Col. Gadhafi's regime is blocking aid, and a temporary ceasefire would just give him a chance to strengthen his hand.

"A ceasefire, temporary in nature, cannot be just an opportunity for both sides to reload and to engage in further violence down the road," Gen. Bouchard said in a conference call. "We must continue to stay engaged to prevent that rearming and reinforcement from taking place."

It was a response backed by the two allies taking the lead role, Britain and France. A spokesman for France's Foreign Ministry argued that strikes must be intensified. Canada, one of only eight of the 28 NATO allies taking part in Libyan air strikes, has from the beginning sided with that more gung-ho pair.

Italy, which has a bloody colonial past in Libya, was the ally most spooked by civilian deaths in a wayward air strike on Sunday. And Gen. Bouchard insists NATO can minimize civilian deaths with precise strikes: "We've had strikes 150 metres from a children's amusement park with zero, zero casualties," he said.

But Italy is also one of the NATO allies doing air strikes and is a sizable political player on Libyan issues. And there are other political cracks, not just among NATO allies, but within them, and from others who initially supported military intervention.

Amr Moussa, the outgoing head of the Arab League, which provided crucial support at the outset, expressed qualms about air strikes and said a ceasefire must be sought. In the United States, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said he thinks the lower house of Congress will vote against backing the mission. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron publicly squabbled with air force brass, who said that extending the mission again would strain resources.

These reservations suggest it's a mission on a time limit.

But some, like former Canadian major-general Lewis Mackenzie, argue that air strikes won't end the war any time soon. In the 1990s Kosovo campaign, he said concessions to reach a political deal, not air strikes, ended it - and the way to end the Libya war is to push rebels to call for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement, with a threat of NATO withdrawal.

Gen. Bouchard plays down the likelihood that an end will come by killing Col. Gadhafi in an air strike. "Gadhafi is hiding in hospitals, he's hiding in mosques, he's hiding under various covers everywhere," he said. "He is keeping well clear of command-and-control nodes in the area."

He talks optimistically of NATO successes, but his own summary suggests no major breakthrough. Rebels hold the east, and enclaves such as Misrata, where pro-Gadhafi forces can harass but not mount major offensives; pro-Gadhafi forces control Tripoli and the western coast; only in the Berber highlands, southwest of Tripoli, are rebels making gains.

But Tripoli is key. The unspoken NATO strategy is for air strikes on security forces and government command sites there to spur defections and rebellion, and hobble the regime's ability to stop it. Gen. Bouchard said NATO has indications the regime is keeping many leaders' families under surveillance to ensure they don't leave, and there have been small "beginnings of uprisings" that have been swiftly put down by security forces.

"Our point is to degrade the forces to stop them from using violence," he said. "But at the end of the day, the population itself will have to make that choice to uprise [rise up]

Will they? "It's a strategy of hope," said Mr. MacKenzie, the former general. "Let's do it and hope."

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa

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