Special from the UK: As Libyan intervention deepens, British opposition intensifies

London — As NATO bombs continue to rain down on suspected pro-Qadhafi targets in Misrata and other flashpoints in Libya’s western provinces, Britain’s already lukewarm popular support for the conflict is now suffering growing unease.

Since the 19 March outset of UN-sanctioned military intervention — now functioning under full NATO command — in the embattled North African country, Britain has played a prominent role in operations. The UN mandate aimed to protect Libyan civilians by “all necessary measures.”
In recent weeks, however, rifts have developed within the international community and UN Security Council, with some members claiming the UK and other nations are stretching the mandate’s definition. Last week, Britain sent military advisers to aid the rag-tag Libyan rebels.  
The House of Commons held a debate on 21 March that garnered 557 votes in favour of intervention, with only 13 against. But since then the growing scope of operations — particularly in light of a joint-statement issued by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barak Obama on 15 April that said anything less than Muammar Qadhafi’s ouster would be “unconscionable betrayal” — has fuelled concern among British parliamentarians across the political spectrum.
“There has been a clear defining of objectives on regime change and on taking one particular side in a civil war,” opposition Labour MP Graham Stringer, who voted for intervention, told Foreign Secretary William Hague during a debate on Tuesday.
During the same House of Commons session, Stringer’s colleague Labour MP John McDonnell, who opposed intervention, decried the operation as appearing “a blood-soaked political shambles.”  
“We have moved from the protection of civilians to regime change,” he said. “Promises of no boots on the ground have been undermined by the presence of advisers' boots on the ground. Now a limited intervention has moved to being a long-haul engagement.”
Conservative MP John Baron, moreover, pointed to a “fundamental shift in policy,” while calling for a recall of parliament from its three-week Easter recess to debate the changing nature of the operation. Baron’s call was backed by five other MPs.
“The [21 March] debate in parliament was very much couched in terms of humanitarian aid and it has become clear since then from the joint statement of the three leaders [Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama], from the rejection of the African Union Peace Proposals and from the deployment of military advisers, that Britain, France and the US will not accept anything less than Qadhafi’s removal,” Baron said. “This is regime change and I do believe that parliament should have the right to debate and vote on this issue again.”
Foreign Minister Hague, however, dismissed such calls.
“I do not think the government's policy has changed in any material way that requires a fresh vote in the House of Commons,” he said.
Baron’s vote against intervention was the lone opposition voice within Conservative — the leading partner in the British coalition government — ranks. His reasons range from the lack of “a clear exit strategy” to a feeling that Arab allies should have taken the lead in the Western-administered no-fly zone.
“Our record of intervention in the Middle East has not been good,” he added, pointing to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  
The British Stop the War Coalition held a protest outside Downing Street on 19 April, drawing a modest but enthusiastic turnout of roughly 100 people. Protesters carried placards comparing the operation to Iraq and Afghanistan. John Rees, of Stop the War, says such “failures of war” encourage opposition to British intervention in Libya.
Executive director of the human rights organization War on Want, John Hilary, attended the protest. He pointed to lessons from past foreign policy misadventures as well as a general feeling of distrust after the Iraq war to justify his opposing stance.
Britons “are not taken in by the idea that it’s a humanitarian intervention,” said Hilary, who views the campaign as part of a “broader imperialist agenda” to secure oil supplies from resource-rich Libya — a view supported by banners at the demonstration reading “hands off Libya.”
Another placard demanded the government “cut war not welfare.” Britons oppose austerity measures enacted under the current term of Prime Minister Cameron. Figures from the Office of National Statistics this week revealed the economy is trudging through 0 percent growth over the last six months. In light of the country’s harsh economic climate, many Britons have little appetite for another expensive long-term military engagement.  
But division remains over this issue. A small but noisy rally of around twenty pro-interventionists outside Downing Street countered the Stop the War protest.
Lucinda Lavelle, secretary of the British Libyan Solidarity Campaign, an organization founded to oppose Qadhafi’s regime, attended the demonstration to support military operation. Lavelle, who is married to a Libyan, was in Benghazi when both the revolt sparked and intervention launched.
Lavelle says military action was necessary to protect civilians, insisting that the opposition camp has “a one-sided argument for everything.” Moreover, she says, Libyans in Benghazi want international assistance.
Opinion polls do suggest the British public are displeased with deepening military involvement. A recent YouGov poll revealed those who believe the intervention has been handled “badly” rose from 21 percent on 22-23 March to 45 percent on 18-19 April, while those who think it is going “well” dropped from 55 percent to 34 percent, respectively.
The UK’s two largest trade unions in a 14 April statement levelled their opposition as well, calling for a halt to military action replaced by international mediation.  
“The intervention of NATO forces potentially risks prolonging a civil conflict and a division on Libya, instead of a lasting solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people," the Public Sector Union Unison statement warned.  
Unite, Britain and Ireland’s largest Union, listed five points against intervention. Military action, according to Unite, “risks killing Libyan civilians while doing nothing to end hostilities on the ground” and “stands in contrast to the indulgence shown by the government to the autocrats in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who have been allowed to repress movements for democracy in their own countries with impunity.”
But Britons so far have not pursued significant, concrete action to dissuade the government from further escalation. Should British ground troops deploy, however, Stop the War’s Rees predicts “there will be a stronger public reaction.”

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