After days of often acrimonious debate played out against a desperate clock, the Security Council authorized member nations to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, diplomatic code words calling for military action. Benghazi erupted in celebration at news of the resolution’s passage.
A military campaign against Colonel Qaddafi, under British and French leadership, was launched less than 48 hours later. American forces mounted a campaign to knock out Libya’s air defense systems, firing volley after volley of Tomahawk missiles from nearby ships against missile, radar and communications centers. Within a week allied air strikes had averted a rout by Colonel Qaddafi of Benghazi and established a no-fly zone over Libya.
The campaign, however, was dogged by friction over who should command the operation, with the United States eventually handing off its lead role to NATO, and by uncertainty over its ultimate goal. Western leaders acknowledged that there was no endgame beyond the immediate United Nations authorization to protect Libyan civilians, and it was uncertain whether even military strikes would force Colonel Qaddafi from power.
In a nationally televised speech March 28, President Obamadefended the American-led military assault, emphasizing that it would be limited and insisting that America had the responsibility and the international backing to stop what he characterized as a looming genocide. At the same time, he said, directing American troops to forcibly remove Colonel Qaddafi from power would be a step too far, and would “splinter” the international coalition that had moved against the Libyan government.
Six months of inconclusive fighting gave way within a matter of days to an assault on Tripoli that unfolded at a breakneck pace. By the night of Aug. 21, rebels surged into the city, meeting only sporadic resistance and setting off raucous street celebrations. Expectations grew that Colonel Qaddafi’s hold on power was crumbling as rebels overran his heavily fortified compound on Aug. 23 and finally established control after days of bloody urban street fighting.
While they struggled to restore order and services to Tripoli, rebels made further military gains, surrounding Colonel Qadaffi’s hometown of Surt, regarded as a last bastion of support for the dictator.
The report of Colonel Qaddafi’s death by the highest ranking military officer in Libya’s interim government on Oct. 20 appeared to put an end to the fierce manhunt for the former leader who remained on the lam in Libya for weeks after the fall of his government.
Libya’s interim leaders had said they believed that some Qaddafi family members — possibly including Colonel Qaddafi and several of his sons — were hiding in the coastal town of Surt or in Bani Walid, another loyalist bastion that the anti-Qaddafi forces captured.
As rumor of his death spread in Tripoli, car horns blared as many celebrated in the streets.