CORRECTION: An earlier homepage headline for this story misstated the location of U.S. warships.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered a pair of U.S. Navy warships to the Mediterranean today, escalating American pressure on Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi as he resists mounting calls to step aside.
Gates said the USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce would be entering the Mediterranean "shortly." The Kearsarge, an amphibious ship capable of carrying up to 2,000 Marines, will be bringing about 400 Marines from the United States, Gates said. The two warships have been specifically earmarked for Libyan-related operations including emergency evacuations and humanitarian relief. The USS Enterprise – a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier – has also been diverted to the Red Sea, where it is en route to the Suez Canal, military officials told National Journal. The ships could reach Libyan waters as early as Wednesday, military officials said.
Speaking to reporters alongside Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gates said the U.S. hadn’t yet made any decisions about whether to use force to establish a no-fly zone over Libya or to provide assistance to the rebels battling Qaddafi. Gates noted that there has been no authorization from the UN Security Council for the use of armed forces and said he had received no request for airstrikes from rebel leaders working to oust Qaddafi. The secretary also said that it wasn’t clear whether other close American allies would support such moves.
“We’re obviously looking at a lot of options and contingencies. No decisions have been made on any other actions,” Gates said. “Our job is to give the president the broadest possible decision-space and options."
Mullen, who just returned from a week-long visit to the Middle East, offered one of the strongest condemnations of Qaddafi to date. The Libyan leader, he said, is “waging war on his own people.”
The Pentagon said yesterday that the military had repositioned some naval and air forces in the region and there was growing discussion of a "no-fly" zone over Libya to prevent Qaddafi forces from firing on the demonstrators. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration wasn’t “taking any options off the table,” but he stressed that the moves to date represented only “contingency planning.”
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers voiced support for the moves. Members of Congress from both parties have been critical of the administration’s response to the Libyan crisis, with some calling for the unilateral imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya and others pressing for the U.S. to provide arms to the rebels battling Qaddafi in cities and towns across Libya.
Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that deploying ships is necessary, calling Qaddafi an “unhinged dictator who is determined to hold onto power.”
“I think to have our ships in the area is what we do when there is real danger,” Feinstein said. “And there is real danger there.”
Sara Sorcher and Megan Scully contributed contributed to this article.