Editor’s Note: President Barack Obama is under mounting pressure from Washington’s influential neoconservatives and senior Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, to escalate U.S. military support for the rebels in Libya’s civil war. Though still refusing to commit ground troops, Obama did dispatch armed drone aircraft which can conduct more precise attacks than high-speed jets can.

Some NATO allies also have signaled a readiness to provide military trainers for the rebels and to expand air strikes against Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, including Monday’s bombing of Gaddafi’s offices in Tripoli. However, this “mission creep” carries with it the potential for a wider conflict, as Morgan Strong notes in this guest article:

Referring to the presence of armed American drone aircraft now operating over Libya, one source called the weapons “unfair and terrible” because “they bomb people in their beds when they are asleep with these planes.”

If the drones or other aircraft take aim at senior Libyan government officials, the source warned that the conflict could become international.

“We know they have a hit list of officials here, but we have a hit list of our own,” the source said. “We don’t have planes without pilots, but we have explosives, and people who are willing to use them against certain officials of these governments.

“We will go after [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy first. He is behind all this. Believe me.”

As for possible reinforcements from other African states, Gaddafi is known to be popular in some countries where he has provided financial assistance, totaling in the billions of dollars, and he has been a leader for African cooperation.

Gaddafi’s investment fund in sub-Saharan Africa has supported projects and rewarded his supporters, from Liberia where he backed Charles Taylor (now on trial in The Hague before the international court for crimes against humanity), to South Africa, to the island of Madagascar.

Gaddafi has advocated a single African military force, a single African currency and a single passport for Africans.

In 2009, Gaddafi was named chairman of the 53-member African Union. Yet there have been serious doubts about Gaddafi’s motives and fitness for the position.

“Gaddafi has a terrible record, certainly in Western Africa, for supporting some very nasty movements in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and stirring up rebellions in other countries under the idea of revolutionary Africa,” said Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society. “Now the African Union has aspirations to be a club of democrats, and this is a man who has been a dictator for 40 years.”

Peter Pham, editor of the Journal of the Middle East and Africa, said Gaddafi’s involvement in Africa has been “nothing short of catastrophic,” including his role in helping to form and arm the notorious Janjaweed militia in Sudan’s Darfur region, which terrorized civilians for years.

“The various African wars that Col. Gaddafi helped stir up took hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions, and their ripple effect continues to this day,” Pham said.

Yet, if Western powers dispatched soldiers to assist anti-Gaddafi rebels, that could provoke strong anti-colonial sentiments around the continent -- and draw more Africans into the conflict, pro-Gaddafi sources said.

Already, the Gaddafi regime has been accused of using African “mercenaries” in the battle against the rebels, a charge the government has denied. But several African nationals have been captured by the rebels in the fighting near Misurata. The Africans’ identities and their countries of origin have not been made public by the rebel command.

In March, the New York Times reported that recruiters in Mali were actively working on the Libyan dictator’s behalf to enlist fighters to support his regime.

Gaddafi has built several mosques in Mali, created a national television network, and provided $100 million for a new government center, which bears his name, in Mali’s capital of Bamako.

One person close to the Libyan government estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 mercenaries from Mali, Niger and the Darfur region in the Sudan have been hired by the Libyan government.

Morgan Strong is a former professor of Middle Eastern history and was an adviser to CBS News “60 Minutes” on the Middle East. He also has written for the Tripoli Post.

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