United Nations (AP) - Supporters of a no-fly zone over Libya called for a vote Thursday on a U.N. resolution aimed at preventing Moammar Gadhafi's planes from carrying out aerial attacks, while the United States, in a striking reversal, pushed for broader action to protect civilians from ground and sea attacks as well.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the Obama administration is "fully focused on the urgency and the gravity of the situation on the ground," where Gadhafi's fighters are intensifying attacks and heading toward rebel-held Bengazi, Libya's second-largest city, and is working "very hard" for a vote on Thursday.
"We are interested in a broad range of actions that will effectively protect civilians and increase the pressure on the Gadhafi regime to halt the killing and to allow the Libyan people to express themselves in their aspirations for the future freely and peacefully," Rice told reporters after more than eight hours of closed-door talks Wednesday by Security Council ambassadors. "Those include discussion of a no-fly zone, but the U.S. view is that ... a no-fly zone has inherent limitations in terms of protection of civilians at immediate risk."
According to a council diplomat who spoke on condition of anonmyity because the talks were private, Rice said the goal should be expanded from creating a no-fly zone to protecting civilians, meaning the international community must have all the tools it needs including authorization to use planes, troops or ships to stop attacks by Gadhafi's air, land and sea forces.
President Barack Obama and his top national security aides had been cautious with calls for a no-fly zone, which the Pentagon described as a step tantamount to war. The U.S. fears involvement in Libya could further strain its already stretched military and entangle the country in an expensive and messy conflict in another Muslim country.
According to the diplomat, Rice said the U.S. will not act without Security Council authorization, does not want to put U.S. ground troops into Libya, and insists on broad international participation, especially by Arab states.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, traveling in the Mideast, said the turning point was the Arab League's support over the weekend for a no-fly zone over Libya.
"That was an extraordinary statement," Clinton said, noting that Arab nations were asking the U.N. Security Council to take action "against one of their own."
Whether the Security Council does take action and authorizes "all necessary measures" to protect civilians remains to be seen.
China's U.N. Ambassador Li Baodong, the current council president, told reporters "we hope we will have real progress tomorrow."
After the sometimes heated council discussions, Britain and France formally submitted the draft resolution that would impose a no-fly zone to the U.N. Secretariat. France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said the text was being sent to capitals overnight and can still be changed before being put to a vote in the 15-member Security Council.
The council was expected to resume closed-door discussions late Thursday morning.
The diplomat said Russia, which has veto power, raised serious questions about the use of force against Gadhafi and other council nations reacted cautiously including Germany and India.
Lebanon, France and Britain introduced the draft resolution Tuesday afternoon, spurred by the Arab League's urgent call for a no-fly zone.
The initial draft resolution would establish a ban on all flights in Libyan airspace and authorize U.N. member states "to take all necessary measures" to protect civilians. But an amendment proposed by the United States and obtained by The Associated Press would authorize states "to protect civilians and civilian objects from the Gadhafi regime, including by halting attacks by air, land and sea forces under the control of the Gadhafi regime."
The council diplomat said Rice told the ambassadors the Obama administration believes there is a significant risk of major atrocities by Gadhafi's forces in Benghazi and wants the council to do everything possible to prevent that and protect civilians.
An Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because council discussions are private, said the United States is discussing a range of other concrete steps with allies, both at the United Nations and at NATO. Among those additional steps are greater humanitarian aid, supporting the Libyan resistance with money from seized Gadhafi-related assets, and greater enforcement of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, whose government had expressed misgivings about a no-fly zone, proposed that the council vote first on a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Libya. Rice told reporters a majority of council members did not support a separate cease-fire resolution but said that a call for a cease-fire could be incorporated in the no-fly resolution.
"We were not rejecting at all the larger resolution," Churkin told reporters, adding that his country thought that the call for a cease-fire "could possibly prevent impending bloodshed in Libya."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier Wednesday urged all sides in Libya to accept an immediate cease-fire.
Ban "is gravely concerned about the increasing military escalation by government forces, which include indications of an assault on the city of Benghazi," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
The U.N. chief warned that "a campaign to bombard such an urban center would massively place civilian lives at risk," Nesirky said.
While Russia and Germany expressed doubts, France pushed for rapid action with Foreign Minister Alain Juppe saying in Paris that several Arab countries have pledged to participate in possible military action in the North African country.
Libya's deputy U.N. ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, who supports the opposition, said five Arab countries have offered support.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called on leaders of the 14 other Security Council nations to "fully shoulder their responsibilities and give support to this initiative."
"Together, we can save the martyred people of Libya," he wrote in a letter. "It is now a matter of days, if not hours. The worst would be that the appeal of the League of the Arab States and the Security Council decisions be overruled by the force of arms."
Clinton said during a visit to Egypt on Wednesday that the Obama administration is consulting with the Arab League "about their understanding of the goals and modalities of a no-fly zone as well as other forms of support."
Libya's Dabbashi told reporters he expects a no-fly resolution to be adopted, with a provision that will also allow air strikes.
He stressed the urgency of council action, saying according to information the Libyan Mission has received, Gadhafi is preparing for two operations: One against the eastern city of Ajdabiya, which is already under siege using mercenaries in more than 400 vehicles that are already en route, and one against mountain villages in the west where tanks, heavy artillery and other weapons are being gathered for an assault.
The latest push for a ban on flights in Libya came as Gadhafi's forces intensified offensives in the east and the west Wednesday with relentless shelling aimed at routing rebel holdouts.
France and Britain failed to win support for a no-fly zone during a two-day meeting of Group of Eight foreign ministers in Paris earlier Tuesday and the G-8's final communique did not mention a flight ban, leaving any action to the Security Council.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at the G-8 that his country wants more details and clarity from the Arab League about its proposals for Libya before approving any military intervention, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said his country was "very skeptical" about military action.
The Security Council on Feb. 26 imposed an arms embargo on Libya and ordered all countries to freeze assets and ban travel for Gadhafi and some close associates. It also referred the regime's deadly crackdown on protesters to the International Criminal Court, for an investigation of possible crimes against humanity.
Associated Press Writers Anita Snow at the United Nations and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.