Senate studies financial package for Arab world

The Senate is examining an aid package to Arab countries to solidify democratic gains and improve relations with citizens in a part of the world accustomed to U.S. support for questionable regimes.

Sen. John Kerry said Wednesday that Democratic and Republican senators were working on the details. The Massachusetts Democrat told a Senate hearing attended by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that "significant financial commitment by the U.S." was crucial to help what he called a "monumental and uplifting transformation" in the region.

"Events this powerful demand a response of equal power," Kerry said. "This is not about sending troops and tanks to remake a region in our image. It is about sending economists and election experts and humanitarian aid to help a region remake itself."

The package from Kerry would be separate from the current spending fight on Capitol Hill, though no timeframe was given for its introduction. Protesters in Tunisia and Egypt have chased their longtime leaders from power this year, and an insurrection in Libya aims at the same result.

The hearing was taking place as the Obama administration weighed military options to force Moammar Gadhafi to halt violence that has killed an unknown number of civilians in Libya. The U.S. and European allies also want Gadhafi to leave power.

Some NATO countries are drawing up contingency plans modeled on the no-fly zones over the Balkans in the 1990s in case the international community decides to impose an air embargo over Libya, diplomats said Wednesday.

NATO has already said that any such move would require a clear mandate from the U.N. Security Council. This is unlikely because Russia, which has veto power in the council, has already rejected the idea.

Still, diplomats at NATO and the European Union said that some countries, including United States and Britain, are already drawing up contingency plans for the air embargo.

The U.S. is constrained because while it may need to flex muscle if sanctions don't work against Gadhafi, it doesn't want to provoke an even deadlier response from a regime that has shown little restraint in attacking its own people. And the U.S. military has no interest in getting bogged down in a third war.

Two U.S. warships passed Wednesday through the Suez Canal on their way to the Mediterranean Sea, closer to Libyan shores, Egyptian officials said. The amphibious assault ships USS Kearsarge and USS Ponce entered the canal from the Red Sea. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to talk to media, said the Kearsarge is carrying 42 helicopters.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he ordered two Navy amphibious warships into the Mediterranean, along with an extra 400 Marines, in case they are needed to evacuate civilians or provide humanitarian relief. And while he did not rule out other options, such as providing air cover for Libyan rebels, he made clear he had little enthusiasm for direct military intervention.

"We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East," Gates said Tuesday, a reference to the challenges involved with adding another war to the one in Iraq and the potential for backlash in the Arab world. 'We're sensitive about all of these things, but we will provide the president with a full range of options."

Gates' caution contrasted with the more strident tone adopted by Clinton, who has warned that Libya "could become a peaceful democracy or it could face protracted civil war" amid continued violent clashes between government forces and those seeking Gadhafi's ouster.

Clinton repeated Wednesday that the U.S. was "taking no options off the table so long as the Libyan government continues to turn its guns on its own people."

No U.S. official has been more explicit, beyond citing the possibility of a no-fly zone over the country.

Their concern was underscored Wednesday in Libya's capital, where Gadhafi lashed out against Europe and the United States for pressuring him to step down. "We will fight until the last man and woman," he vowed, warning that thousands of Libyans will die if U.S. and NATO forces intervene in the conflict.