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Libya conflict: Is Qaddafi's exit in the offing?

French officials claim that emissaries from Muammar Qaddafi say he is ready to discuss a departure from power. But the Libya leader has put out such feelers before, only to withdraw or deny them.

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French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, left, speaks with France's Foreign Affair Minister Alain Juppe during a debate on the French intervention in Libya at the National Assembly in Paris, Tuesday. France's foreign minister said Tuesday Paris has had contact with emissaries from Muammar Qaddafi who say the embattled Libyan strongman is 'prepared to leave.'

Jacques Brinon/AP

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French officials claimed on Tuesday that emissaries from Muammar Qaddafi have told them the Libyan leader is ready to discuss his departure from power – a claim that, if nothing else, demonstrates how a negotiated settlement is suddenly the preferred solution to a war that drags on.

It was not immediately clear how serious the claims were of Mr. Qaddafi’s willingness to step down. The mercurial leader has put out such feelers before, only to withdraw or deny them.

But the French government’s eagerness to broadcast the potential for a negotiated settlement was only the latest sign of a broader shift among international parties to the conflict – and perhaps even some Libyan factions – that are favoring negotiations over continued warfare.

• Also on Tuesday the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said while on a visit to Libya’s neighbor Algeria that the Libyan crisis now requires a negotiated settlement.

• On Monday, President Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in a telephone conversation that the United States supports Russian efforts to broker a deal with Qaddafi.

• With mixed reports about how their offensive against Tripoli is going in mountains outside the capital city, some of Libya’s rebels now favor a cease-fire during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that begins around Aug. 1 this year. That could serve as a period to advance negotiations. NATO has also said it would be willing to entertain a proposal for a cease-fire during Ramadan – as long as Qaddafi's forces also respected the truce.

Comments from French officials Tuesday were the most insistent yet that a settlement to the 5-month-old conflict is in the offing. Prime Minister Francois Fillon told a parliamentary committee that “a political solution is ... beginning to take shape,” while Foreign Minister Alain Juppé told a radio broadcast: “Emissaries are telling us, ‘Qaddafi is ready to go; let’s talk about it.’ ”

One reason for the shift toward negotiations among NATO powers engaged in the war is that domestic audiences are tiring of a war that the alliance was supposed to be able to conclude quickly, some say.

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Mr. Obama has faced mounting opposition in Congress to US participation in the NATO campaign. And French President Nicolas Sarkozy – whose forces lead the NATO air campaign in tandem with Britain – is anxious to see the French military’s role end well in advance of next April’s presidential election, when he will seek reelection.

Qaddafi has for weeks switched back and forth between advocating talks and insisting he would never negotiate his departure, but some regional analysts say that, in a sense, there is just too much smoke now for there not to be some fire.

“Qaddafi has consistently denied any negotiations, but now there are so many reports from so many sources that it seems there must be something going on,” says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

What the long-surviving Qaddafi is doing, Mr. Phillips assumes, is “using hardball tactics to extract as good a deal as he can get.” The Libyan leader is not stupid, he adds, “and has to know that he can’t last indefinitely” – since the rebels control much of Libya’s oil and African mercenaries make up a large proportion of Qaddafi’s armed forces.

It also can’t be comforting to Qaddafi that the rebels’ Transitional National Council, the self-described interim government in Benghazi, continues to gain in international recognition.

Representatives of the rebel council are set to meet with NATO and European Union leaders in Brussels Wednesday. The opposition government’s growing legitimacy will also be on display when the so-called contact group of countries, including the US, will meet in Turkey on Friday. The group is seeking a resolution to the Libyan conflict.

As much as the rebels might still wish to “take their fight all the way” without negotiating with the regime, Phillips says, the reality is that the “indecisive nature” of the Libyan conflict is likely to erode their determination.

The military stalemate, he says, “may very well lead them to accept a settlement that is less than their initial demands.”

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