DUBAI (Reuters) - The U.S. military and its European allies stand by as a desperate Arab dictator sends tanks and helicopter gunships to crush popular revolts and wreak revenge.
That was Saddam Hussein's Iraq after the Gulf War exactly 20 years ago, not today's Libya, where the outcome remains unclear.
A U.S.-led coalition, after kicking Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait, left Saddam to smash Shi'ite and Kurdish rebels in March 1991, even though then-President George Bush had encouraged them to rise up. Saddam was viewed as a useful counterweight to Iran.
On Saturday, the U.N. Security Council imposed travel and asset sanctions on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his entourage, adopted an arms embargo and called for the International Criminal Court to prosecute anyone responsible for killing civilian protesters.
But it stopped short of imposing a no-fly zone to defend rebel enclaves from Gaddafi's forces -- as proposed last week by Libya's deputy U.N. envoy, Ibrahim Dabbashi, one of the first Libyan diplomats to denounce the Brother Leader and defect.
"Things are moving so fast on the ground in Libya now that it's entirely possible this thing would be brought to an end by the Libyans themselves and that's in many ways the most desirable outcome," said Malcolm Chalmers, at the Royal United Services Institute, a British military think-tank.
But he said contingency plans should be made for a possible air exclusion zone in case it proved necessary.
Under the surrender terms that ended the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. military barred flights by fixed-wing Iraqi aircraft, but crucially not helicopters, which Saddam's forces used to devastating effect against Shi'ite and Kurdish rebels.
Western powers then enforced a stricter no-fly zone in Iraqi Kurdistan and ensured that Saddam's troops withdrew southwards to persuade hundreds of thousands of terrified Kurds who had fled to the mountains of Iran and Turkey it was safe to return.
That enabled the Kurds to gain autonomy -- when they weren't fighting each other -- in northern Iraq in defiance of Saddam.
But Iraq is a tricky precedent, given how the United States selectively used a no-fly zone imposed in the south in 1992 to destroy Iraqi air defences in years before its 2003 invasion.
Winning U.N. Security Council approval for any military action in Libya looks difficult for now, and Gaddafi would portray any Western intervention as a neo-colonial outrage and use it to compromise the nationalist credentials of his foes.
Gaddafi has already lost control of much of Libya to people demanding an end to his 41-year rule, but has sworn to fight to the death. Should this turn into a long, bloody struggle, with Gaddafi turning aircraft and tanks on civilians and mutinous soldiers, calls for international military action may grow.
There have been sketchy reports of Libyan air power being used against civilians -- something one of Gaddafi's sons has denied. Two defecting Libyan fighter pilots flew their jets to Malta on Feb. 21, saying they had been told to bomb protesters.
"Right now, Libyans desperately need a measure that limits Gaddafi's capacity to kill his people," wrote Ranj Alaaldin and Daniel Korski on the Open Democracy website, arguing that U.N. sanctions are not enough and that the Libyan leader must be deprived of his potentially decisive ability to use air power.
Charles Heyman, another British defence analyst, said a no-fly zone could be imposed as early as this week with European powers, rather than the United States, taking the lead.
"I think (U.S. President Barack) Obama is keeping quiet because he wants the Europeans to take the responsibility for this," he said.
Western leaders are already speaking out more boldly now that evacuations have sharply reduced the number of their citizens stranded in the oilfields and cities of Libya.
Obama said in a call to German leader Angela Merkel: "When a leader's only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now."
Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, said Washington had failed to align itself clearly with the torrent of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world or find practical ways to support it.
"Given that, it would seem hypocritical to some for the U.S. to play an aggressive role in Libya when it has been so passive in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen," he said.
U.N. sanctions are a slow and uncertain way to help remove Gaddafi without seeming to pre-empt the Libyans themselves.
A U.S. military strike aimed at Gaddafi, echoing bombing raids ordered by then-President Ronald Reagan against the Libyan leader in 1986, would be a "pretty risky" option.
"A third alternative is to stiffen the capacities of the forces in liberated areas working through the Tunisian and Egyptian forces. This would be preferred by the opposition itself. I suspect the Tunisians and Egyptians would be willing and the world would not object," Springborg said.
In Egypt, ruled by a military council after protesters toppled President Hosni Mubarak, an Egyptian military source said all options were open on Libya, including the use of ground forces, if this was authorised by the U.N. Security Council.
Any air exclusion zone would be more palatable under a U.N. umbrella, rather than a U.S. or NATO initiative, especially if it was backed by the Arab League or even the African Union.
David Cortright, of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said Obama should seek Security Council authorisation to begin planning for such a zone, inviting support from Arab states.
"Even if Egypt or Morocco sent only a few planes it would be hugely important in terms of the political legitimacy of the operation," Cortright said.
A no-fly zone would be "eminently do-able" with an airborne early warning plane and a few combat aircraft, said former British air force officer and aerospace analyst Andrew Brookes.
"The question is, at what political cost, and with what political authority?" he asked, listing possible operational mishaps that could result in unintended civilian casualties.
Iraqi Shi'ite politician Ahmad Chalabi, who led a CIA-backed opposition group based in northern Iraq in the 1990s, called on the Arab League to take part in any no-fly zone in Libya.
"The international community bears a great responsibility because Gaddafi was allowed to be armed just as Saddam was allowed to be armed," he said.
Additional reporting by Andrew Croft and William Maclean in London, Marwa Awad in Cairo and Suadad al-Salhy in Baghdad