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The United States is sending ships and Marines to the Mediterranean as scattered fighting between Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s forces and those who would topple his rule threatens to spill into a bloody, widespread civil war.

“I have directed several Navy ships to the Mediterranean,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday. “The USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce will be entering the Mediterranean shortly, and will provide for us a capacity for both emergency evacuations and also for humanitarian relief.”

Gates also said 400 Marines are being sent to the region to replace Marines from the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge who had deployed in Afghanistan.

Any military action in the region must be weighed carefully to avoid unforeseen consequences, Gates said. Though the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone over Libya has been discussed between the U.S. and its allies, he said no decisions have been made about options that would require military action. No military measures have been authorized by the U.N. Security Council, Gates added.

“Our job is to give the president the broadest possible decision space,” he said.

Earlier Tuesday, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, General James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, told lawmakers that estabishing a no-fly zone would be a difficult operation that could require direct military action.

“You would have to remove the air defense capability in order to establish the no-fly zone,” he said. “So no illusions here, it would be a military operation. It wouldn’t simply be telling people not to fly airplanes.”

Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, who sat alongside Gates during the news conference Tuesday, confirmed a no-fly zone would be a complex undertaking, and that would have to be done “in a safe manner .”

Also Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clintion called on Ghadhafi to step down.

“We have joined the Libyan people in demanding that Gadhafi must go, now, without further violence or delay,” she told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Change is sweeping the Middle East, and pro-democracy movements are gaining ground in countries from Oman to Bahrain, said Mullen, who returned in recent days from a tour of the region.

But, he said, “Ghadhafi is waging war on his own people.”


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