BENGHAZI, Libya — Tank-backed troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi tightened a blockade of Libya’s fourth-largest city Tuesday after their latest assault was beaten back. Rebels defending Zawiya pleaded for international help, saying that only about two weeks of food and medical supplies remained for the estimated 100,000 residents.
“If they (the international community) have some way to help us, don’t wait. Time is running out. Our children are suffering now,” said Hesham, a fighter reached by telephone, as he and some 2,000 others watched news reports on a large television in the main square. “We haven’t the power to stand more.”
The United States, however, made it clear that it's very reluctant to become involved militarily in the crisis, saying that two U.S. Navy assault vessels deploying in the Mediterranean with helicopters and hundreds of Marines would be limited to humanitarian aid and evacuation operations for now.
“All of the options beyond the humanitarian assistance and evacuation are complex,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who noted that a U.N. resolution slapping sanctions on the Gadhafi regime “provides no authorization for the use of force. There is no unanimity within NATO for the use of armed force.”
“We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East,” Gates told a Pentagon news conference.
The Obama administration’s caution reflected concern that another foreign military entanglement would further stress U.S. forces strained by nearly 10 years of war in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq, and underscored the administration's efforts to avoid fueling anti-Americanism in the Muslim world by taking a role in what's been homegrown anti-government uprisings.
A fresh wave of protests roiled the region Tuesday, with tens of thousands of people clashing with police and motorcycle-borne militiamen in Tehran and other Iranian cities, and demonstrators taking to the streets in Yemen and Bahrain.
In Zawiya, 35 miles west of Libya's capital, Tripoli, the hodgepodge defense force of civilians and police and army defectors held off a six-hour overnight assault by troops and tanks thought to be commanded by Gadhafi’s son Khamis, residents said by telephone.
“They attacked from both sides, from the east and the west. We tried to defend ourselves and we stopped them moving to the city, said Hesham, who said that the rebels suffered five or six wounded. “They were using the military cars and small tanks.”
Hesham, who asked that his last name be withheld for his safety, said that about 70 people were missing, thought to be kidnapped by the attackers and taken to Tripoli.
The city hasn’t received food or medical supplies since the uprising erupted there Feb. 17, he said.
“We still have the materials we had before," but they're likely to run out in about two weeks, "especially the children’s milk and stuff like that,” Hesham said. “The hospitals are working, but they don’t have the full supplies, so they try to do what they can.”
“They’re trying to starve us to death,” said Tarek Zawi, a rebel fighter who said Gadhafi helicopters had been hovering over the city all day and that he'd been told to expect more attacks throughout the night.
“This will be a very bad night,” he predicted, “a very bad night.”
Aid groups warned that a humanitarian crisis was building in Libya and on its borders, where thousands of foreign workers have been trying to flee to Tunisia and Egypt, the groups said. TV footage from the Libyan-Tunisian border showed hundreds of weakened refugees clamoring for handouts of high-energy biscuits from the U.N.’s World Food Program.
Medical supplies also were running low, a situation aggravated by the absence of 700 skilled nurses who are among the more than 140,000 people who've fled Libya since the turmoil began.
Mohamed Sultan, the Cairo-based spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said volunteers from the Libyan Red Crescent had been rallied to fill in at the country’s struggling medical centers but that they weren't enough to care for the hundreds of people being treated for gunshot wounds.
In Washington, Gates said the USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce, huge amphibious assault vessels equipped with helicopters, Harrier jump jets and landing craft, would be sent to the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal as part of a deployment of U.S. sea and air forces to Libya.
But those forces alone wouldn't be enough to impose a no-fly zone, which some countries have called for to prevent Gadhafi from using air power in his military moves.
Although U.S. officials didn’t rule out establishing such a zone as one of the options being prepared for President Barack Obama's consideration, they made it clear that they're reluctant to embrace the idea, saying it would involve military action to knock out Gadhafi’s air defenses.
“You would have to remove the air defense capability in order to establish the no-fly zone. So it _ no illusions here _ it would be a military operation,” Marine Gen. James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It wouldn't simply be telling people not to fly airplanes.”
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned against cutting the State Department’s budget at a time that the Middle East is in such flux.
“A strong and strategic American response will be essential,” she said.
She also cautioned that the outcome in Libya is anything but clear.
“In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy or it could face protracted civil war or it could descend into chaos. The stakes are high,” she said.
In Tehran, large crowds gathered in several parts of the Iranian capital to demand the release of two prominent opposition leaders whom the Islamic regime arrested last week. Iranian protesters also want political and economic reforms in their theocratic Shiite Muslim nation.
Police cars were set on fire and a large banner of Iran’s ruling cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was burned, according to Tehran Bureau, a journalist-run website that focuses on Iranian affairs.
Security forces used tear gas and batons to beat back protesters, news services said. “Death to the dictator!” echoed throughout the capital, a taunt that once was unthinkable to say aloud on a public street.
Iranian officials have dismissed Western concern over the crackdown on opposition figures, saying the arrests were internal matters.
Demonstrations also continued in Yemen and Bahrain, two countries in which recent protests have turned violent.
In Sanaa, Yemen's capital, demonstrations marked the third "Day of Rage" in which protesters called for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and condemned the use of force against peaceful protesters. A rival demonstration by the president's supporters erupted nearby, but both camps ended their rallies with no incidents of violence, the Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee wrote on his blog.
At least 10 demonstrators were killed and many others wounded in the past week's violence in the southern port city of Aden, according to news reports. Saleh has promised an investigation into the Aden deaths. The president met Tuesday with university students and faculty members as protesters on the campus of Sanaa University chanted slogans against him.
In Bahrain, an estimated 35,000 protesters marched through Manama, the capital, demanding constitutional reform, an end to corruption and the resignation of the prime minister.
In a sign of increasing boldness, about 150 protesters camped outside the Bahrain Financial Harbor, a landmark new business center that's both a symbol of the island nation's financial elite and a real estate development backed by the Bahraini royal family.
In Oman, thousands of people waving flags and wearing red and green scarves marched around the Grand Mosque in the capital, Muscat, in a demonstration of a different sort: an emotional parade of support for their 70-year-old leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, after days of unprecedented rioting and civil unrest.
It was the largest gathering in Oman since smaller groups began calling for government reform two weeks ago. Over the weekend, a peaceful sit-in of about 2,000 people, many of them jobless college graduates, turned violent in the northern port city of Sohar, where young rioters seized control of a central traffic circle. At least one person was killed
Oman's widely admired leader responded to protesters' demands by shuffling Cabinet ministers, offering unemployment benefits and agreeing to study whether to give an elected advisory body more power. It was the first such unrest since Qaboos came to power in 1970 in a bloodless coup against his father.
(Youssef reported from Benghazi, Libya. Landay reported from Washington. McClatchy special correspondent Jackie Spinner in Oman, Warren P. Strobel in Washington and Ameera Butt of the Merced-Sun Star contributed to this article, as did a special correspondent in Manama, Bahrain, whose identity is being withheld for security reasons.)
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