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Libyan rebels under fire from pro-Gadhafi forces take cover near a burning gas facility close to Ras Lanuf, Libya, on Wednesday. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Libyan rebels under fire from pro-Gadhafi forces take cover near a burning gas facility close to Ras Lanuf, Libya, on Wednesday. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Britain stands alone in push for military intervention in Libya Add to ...

The newly elected Conservative Prime Minister in Britain, fresh from making deep budget cuts to the military, responds to a faraway political crisis with sudden and dramatic calls for military action against the ruling dictatorship, with top-secret raids and gunboats steaming to a foreign coast.

To some here in Britain, David Cameron in 2011 is coming to resemble Margaret Thatcher in 1982, the year the Iron Lady surprised the world by going to war against Argentina's military junta.

While Libya today has little in common with the Falklands then, Mr. Cameron has been far more aggressive than other Western leaders in calling for a foreign military intervention, and this week has found himself embroiled in scandal over a botched top-secret spy mission to give MI6 support to the Libyan rebels.

Mr. Cameron faced hostility in the House of Commons Wednesday from a Labour Opposition accusing him of trying to launch a military intervention without United Nations authorization.

He insisted that, while he was now seeking international co-operation, a military intervention in the form of an imposed no-fly zone and associated bombing campaign may be necessary. He did not say that UN approval would be necessary.

"We have to prepare for what we might have to do if he goes on brutalizing his people," Mr. Cameron said of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. "I don't think we can stand aside and let that happen."

In a day of frenzied diplomatic activity, Britain - with the assistance of France - drafted a resolution for the United Nations Security Council to declare a no-fly zone over Libya, a resolution which, if passed, would obligate UN members to help defend the zone. That would entail bombing raids and a heavy air-force presence. The United States does not back the resolution.

The contrast with the U.S., whose government has been struggling to avoid any suggestion of military action in Libya, has been striking. This has led some to suggest that Mr. Cameron is using the conflict to distance himself from his predecessor Tony Blair, who visibly supported Mr. Gadhafi when the dictator was apologizing for terrorism and opening his economy to foreign investment.

Behind the scenes, the United States and Britain have begun co-operating closely, with the assistance of many NATO member states and the European Union, officials from the British foreign office said. But Mr. Cameron's language continues to send a rather more bellicose message, both to domestic audiences and to Libyans, making Britain one of the few countries to speak unequivocally of military engagement.

"I don't get the sense that the international community really wants to do very much, which makes Britain sound different," said Elizabeth Quintana, an air power analyst with the Royal United Services Institute, a British military think tank. "And in the United States there's a real split of opinions, with [Secretary of State]Hillary Clinton and [Vice-President]Joe Biden very pro no-fly zone, and [Defence Secretary]Robert Gates and the President very much opposed to military intervention. The U.S. will not do anything without NATO support."

This puts British opinion almost alone - and draws attention to Britain's complex relationship with Libya. Mr. Blair was one of the most enthusiastic European leaders in embracing Colonel Gadhafi after U.S. sanctions ended and the dictator renounced terrorism a decade ago.

Britain also controversially freed the imprisoned terrorist Abdel-Basset Ali Megrahi, convicted of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, ostensibly on medical grounds after receiving intense diplomatic pressure from Tripoli to do so.

"We have sat out earlier conflicts, but in this case, given the proximity to Europe and the refugee and oil repercussions, I think Britain can't help but be obligated to take action in Libya," said Sir Richard Dalton, who was a British ambassador to Libya under Mr. Blair.

However, he rejected the idea that Britain's support of Col. Gadhafi obligated the country to side visibly with the democracy activists and rebels in Libya. "Britain was actually one of the last major countries to go into Libya, and we have no reason to be repairing our reputation there," he said.

British officials say privately that there is a more pragmatic concern that Britain's large petroleum investments in Libya (the London-based oil company BP has a huge stake there) could be jeopardized if Mr. Cameron does not support the rebels, and that Mr. Cameron is worried that a large and sudden loss of BP revenues in Libya could damage his government's tax base badly at a moment when Britain is struggling to recover from a deep recession.

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