Cluster Bombs Fall on Misratah While Obama Calls for Regime Change

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The New York Times and international NGO Human Rights Watch both confirm that forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi shelled the city of Misratah with cluster bombs, munitions banned by much of the international community. Times reporter C.J. Chivers, currently in Misratah, no stranger to warzones and author of a recent book on the history of the AK-47, reports:

The cluster munitions were visible in use late Thursday night, in the form of what appeared to be 120-millimeter mortar rounds that burst in the air over the city, scattering high-explosive bomblets below.

Witnesses for Human Rights Watch also observed their use on the night of April 14. A press release from HRW details the effects of such weaponry:

The cluster munition is a Spanish-produced MAT-120 120mm mortar projectile, which opens in mid-air and releases 21 submunitions over a wide area. Upon exploding on contact with an object, each submunition disintegrates into high-velocity fragments to attack people and releases a slug of molten metal to penetrate armored vehicles.

According to the latest HRW communique, the “submunitions appear to have landed about 300 meters from Misrata hospital.” Other witnesses told the organization that they’d seen cluster munitions used days earlier. The Libyan government is one of the few not to be a signatory of an international convention that went into effect last year, banning the use of cluster bombs — instruments of war first developed by the Nazis. (The U.S., it must be noted, ranks among this pariah group as well.)

Misratah, not far from the Libyan capital of Tripoli, is the most prominent city in the country’s west to be under rebel control and has been for the past few weeks the target of a sustained and relentless assault by Gaddafi forces with tank and rocket fire. Casualty estimates are unclear, but potentially run into the thousands. In a joint op-ed printed by the New York Times on Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron said Misratah “is enduring a medieval siege, as [Gaddafi] tries to strangle its population into submission.” A few sentences later, weighing the terrors that the Gaddafi regime is apparently unleashing upon its own civilians, the three heads of state insist that “it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gaddafi in power.”

That’s as bold a call as any in recent days arguing for regime change. Yet how that’ll take place — with NATO’s Secretary General already complaining of a shortage of strike craft to launch sorties across the Libyan no-fly zone — is literally up in the air. This is the Obama-Sarkozy-Cameron roadmap:

The regime has to pull back from the cities it is besieging, including [Ajdabiyah], [Misratah] and Zintan, and return to their barracks. However, so long as [Gaddafi] is in power, NATO must maintain its operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds. Then a genuine transition from dictatorship to an inclusive constitutional process can really begin, led by a new generation of leaders. In order for that transition to succeed, [Gaddafi] must go and go for good.

Lost in this wishful blueprint for change is what it’ll actually take to pull Gaddafi out of his bunker and claw his fingers off the levers of power in a state he has run as his personal fief for four decades. Many pragmatic analysts, including retired U.S. army top brass, suspect the rebels are too weak to oust Gaddafi and that he’ll only go if there are the proverbial foreign “boots on the ground” to kick him out. Moreover, some argue that a considerable international force will be needed in any event to secure the peace when Gaddafi falls. James Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, writes in Foreign Policy:

Suppose the coalition does succeed. What happens once Qaddafi is gone, his regime collapses, and the rebels win? When such vacuums emerge, the results are unpredictable, at best. The world needs no further example of the costs of not preparing for the post-combat phase of an intervention than what it has seen in Iraq.

None of this — beyond a limp call for U.N. post-war development aid — is really addressed in the U.S.-French-British statement. Clearly, there’s little political will for another full-fledged land war. Only six of NATO’s 28 member states have committed their militaries to Libyan operations. Negotiations over a ceasefire proved stillborn last weekend. And few governments seem keen to arm and boost the rebels themselves, despite the ceaseless clamor for help now coming from Benghazi. All the while, dozens, if not hundreds, may be dying daily — some of these deaths perhaps now the result of an indiscriminate terror described by some as steel rain.