The United States on Saturday backed the Arab League's call for the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, and Washington said it was preparing for "all contingencies."
"We welcome this important step by the Arab League, which strengthens the
international pressure on Gaddafi and support for the Libyan people," the White House said in a statement.
The Arab League said on Saturday it had called on the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone in Libya, in a decision that will provide the regional support NATO has said is needed for any military action.
Libyan rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi have said a no-fly zone to ground Libyan warplanes and to prevent the moving of troops by helicopter is vital if its forces are to succeed.
"The Arab League has officially requested the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone against any military action against the Libyan people," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told a news conference after a meeting of the group.
The zone should be lifted once the crisis had ended, Moussa said. Oman's foreign minister said all Arab states had agreed on the need for a no-fly zone to protect Libyans.
The Arab League said it rejected any "foreign military" intervention against the Libyan people and it had opened contact with the rebel Libyan National Council in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi that included contacts on humanitarian affairs.
The League suspended Libya for its crackdown on the anti-Gaddafi uprising and at a March 2 meeting said the imposition of a no-fly zone was an option it was considering.
European states have been looking to the Arab League to take the lead in shaping policy towards the revolt.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the leader of the opposition’s national council, told with Al Arabiya TV that he welcomed the Arab League’s decision to support a no-fly zone over Libya and its decision to open communications with the council.
“I appreciate the vision of the Arab league in leaving the issue of recognition to individual states and I appreciate their decision to open channels of communication with us.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier said the U.S. military and other allies could impose a no-fly zone on Libya but it remains unclear if it would be a “wise” move.
“This is not a question of whether we or our allies can do this. We can do it,” Gates told reporters aboard his plane after a visit to Bahrain.
“The question is whether it's a wise thing to do and that's the discussion that's going on at a political level,” he said.
Gates, who has emerged as a skeptic on taking military action in Libya within President Barack Obama's administration, said last week that a no-fly zone would be a major operation and suggested it could provoke an anti-Western backlash in the region.
But he said Saturday that he wanted to make clear that the U.S. military and allied countries had the capacity to shut down the Libyan regime's air force if ordered.
“If we are directed to impose a no-fly zone, we have the resources to do it. I just want to make clear we have the capacity to do it.”At a meeting of NATO defense ministers on Thursday in Brussels, the alliance delayed any decision on launching a no-fly zone against Libya and called for more military planning.
Meanwhile, the European Union's foreign policy chief said Saturday that she would go to Cairo to meet with leaders of the Arab League to discuss the situation in Libya.
Catherine Ashton said she would fly to Cairo on Sunday and discuss a "collaborative approach" with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa on Libya and the rest of the region and would also meet with Egypt's prime minister-designate, Essam Sharaf, and with Nabil Elaraby, the nominee for foreign minister.
Ashton said it was necessary to evaluate how effective economic sanctions imposed on Moammar Gadhafi's regime had been so far and that she was "keeping all options moving forward" regarding any additional measures.
"We have started ... prudent, careful planning for all options," Ashton told reporters, without specifying whether military actions were being considered. "What we're seeking to achieve is a joint approach - it recognizes we need to look at all the available options."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle welcomed the EU's "very cautious" stance on possible military intervention.
"We do not want to be drawn into a war in North Africa - we should have learned from the events in and surrounding Iraq," Westerwelle said. "It is very important that the impression doesn't arise that this is a conflict of the West against the Arab world or a Christian crusade against people of Muslim faith.".
But Gaddafi does not appear to be yielding to all the international and regional pressures and has pressed vowed to continue crushing his opponents he describes as terrorists and drug takers.
On Friday, brigades loyal to Gaddafi captured the strategic town of Zawiya and a key oil town in the east as they fought to dislodge opposition fighters who took refuge among towering storage containers of crude oil and gas in nearby facilities
Zawiya's main square, which had been a key center of resistance to the west of the capital, bore the scars of battle and the streets were lined with tanks as loyalists waving green flags rallied amid a heavy presence of uniformed pro-Gaddafi troops and snipers. There was talk of rebel bodies having been bulldozed away, and the dome and minaret of the nearby mosque were demolished.
With Gaddafi's men also on the march against opposition fighters in the east, Western nations appeared in disarray over how to stop the bloodshed.
Gaddafi men excluded
Top officials in the pan-Arab organization said two envoys from Tripoli would be excluded from the meeting, held as Gaddafi's forces step up their attacks on rebels.
"No Libyans will attend the meeting based on the decision of the Arab League on March 2 to suspend Libya from meetings," Hisham Youssef, chief of staff of Arab League secretary general Amr Mussa, told AFP.
Foreign ministers and representatives of the 22-member bloc would discuss "the developments of the situation in Libya to find ways to end the bloodshed in Libya," Youssef said.
The foreign minister of European Union chair Hungary, Janos Martonyi, said Friday that "the expectation is that they will support a no-fly zone under some conditions."
"The best thing I think would be that a concerted action would be planned and implemented with the countries of the Arab League," he added.