WASHINGTON -- The U.N. Security Council began preparing sanctions against Libya yesterday, escalating a campaign of pressure aimed at forcing Col. Muammar el Kadafi to surrender suspects in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing.
Sanctions that U.S. officials say are under serious consideration fall short of anything that would strangle Libya economically and do not set a deadline.
Instead, they would block air traffic and military sales and training to Libya, and would aim to cut its diplomatic representation worldwide.
But additional measures are being discussed among the five permanent Security Council members, including trade curbs on oil equipment. The United States, as part of a war of nerves, pointedly refuses to rule out unilateral or joint military action, although drawing broad Arab support would be difficult.
U.S. officials voice confidence that sanctions would win support from Russia and that China, at a minimum, would not veto the measure. But enlisting non-aligned countries could prove more difficult.
"Most of the non-aligned [nations] are concerned about a breakdown of sovereignty. That's the underlying philosophical issue of the year," said one U.S. official.
Moreover, Egypt, whose president, Hosni Mubarak, has tried to ease friction between his Libyan neighbor and the West, has assumed a leading role in seeking a peaceful resolution.
A close ally of the United States in last year's Persian Gulf conflict, Egypt fears that military action against Libya could help revive Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's political strength among Arab masses, enrage Muslim fundamentalists and undermine the Middle East peace process.
The escalation of threats comes at a time when the Bush administration is under election-year pressure to keep the heat on Libya and avoid giving the impression that it is letting terrorists off gently.
The problem is compounded by U.S. inability so far to dislodge Mr. Hussein, who continues to obstruct enforcement of U.N. resolutions and has demonstratively thumbed his nose at President Bush in recent statements.
In the past week, Iraq suggested that Mr. Bush ought to spend less time trying to topple Mr. Hussein and more time worrying about selling American cars.
But U.S. officials say the campaign against Libya has had impact and Arab diplomats agree, although they are concerned about the possibility of a military attack against Libya.
"The signs are clear and unequivocal that he's scared," a U.S. official said.
"It's fair to describe his mental state as genuinely afraid."
For months, this official said, Libya has sought to reinforce its air defenses and move weaponry out of harm's way.
In 1986, Libya appeared to have been caught completely unprepared when the United States bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for alleged Libyan complicity in a Berlin discotheque bombing that killed an American serviceman.
"Definitely they are worried, and the escalation deepens their worries," said an Arab diplomat, adding that he hopes for a peaceful resolution.
So far, though, Libya has refused to capitulate.
Its latest response to U.S. pressure, conveyed to the Security Council by U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, offers to comply with French demands for help in probing the 1989 downing of an airliner over Niger that killed 170.
France has charged four Libyans, including a brother-in-law of Colonel Kadafi, in the incident.
But Libya gave no indication that it would surrender two suspects indicted by Britain and the United States in the Pan Am Flight 103 explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 that killed 270 people. Libya claims that its constitution forbids extradition.
Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali quoted Libya's U.N. ambassador as urging that a "mechanism" be created to implement Resolution 731, which demands "a full and effective response" to U.S. and British requests for extradition.
A lawyer for the two suspects, Abdel Baset Ali Mohamed al-Meghrahi and Al-Amin Khalife Fhimah, told Reuters from Tripoli that they could be tried outside Libya but not in the United States or Scotland.
The United States dismissed the Libyan offer and maintained its rhetorical pressure.
"We think it's clear that Libya is seeking to confuse the issue [and] remains unwilling to comply in any meaningful way with the resolution," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.
"Libya has not turned over promptly the persons accused of the bombing for trial. Libya has not disclosed all it knows of the crimes. Libya has not paid appropriate compensation. And Libya has not taken concrete action to end its support for terrorism. We'll be consulting with other members of the Security Council about next steps," he said.
Of the latest Libyan offer, a U.S. official said, "I think they're trying a whole series of alternatives to see which ones work with the international community and resonate."
American officials, apparently seeking to avoid any statement that would give Colonel Kadafi comfort, refuse to commit the United States to working solely through the United Nations.
"We will not foreclose any other option," one official said.