BRUSSELS — Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday urged more NATO allies to join the air campaign against Libya, arguing that it was putting a strain on the seven members of the 28-nation alliance that are carrying the burden in a conflict that shows few signs of ending soon, U.S. officials said.
In a sign of the growing strain that the 3-month-old operation is putting on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Gates took the unusual step of naming five alliance members with limited or no role in the operation that he said should provide strike aircraft to hit ground targets in Libya or other capabilities, according to a senior U.S. official.
Gates made the comments at a closed-door meeting of NATO ministers that endorsed continuing the air operation for another three months.
Although NATO officials hoped the meeting would send a message that the alliance is united and determined to continue the war until Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi gives up power, the signs of divisions within the alliance raised questions about its staying power if Gadhafi continues to hold, despite the increasing pounding Tripoli and other cities have taken in recent weeks.
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Gates, who is retiring at the end of the month, called on Germany and Poland, which have refused to participate in the Libya campaign, to contribute. He also urged Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands, which are participating but not in airstrikes, to step up their role, according to officials familiar with the discussion.
Calling the conflict a "war of attrition" and a "psychological war," the senior U.S. official said that "crews are getting tired" and that "the stress on aircraft is significant." With only a handful of alliance members participating, he added, "it doesn't mean they can't continue the operation; they will, but it's stressful."
Only France, Britain and five other Western members are conducting airstrikes against ground targets in Libya, and as operations continue the strain on their armed forces has grown severe, officials said.
In addition, the official said, the air campaign is straining the military budgets of those conducting airstrikes because they had not planned for the cost of such a long campaign.