WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama dropped the careful condemnation, threats of consequences and the reminders to Moammar Gadhafi's regime about its responsibility to avoid violence. In their place he delivered a more forceful message to the Libyan leader: Leave.
The president called on Gadhafi to step down for the first time Saturday, saying that the Libyan government must be held accountable for its brutal crackdown on dissenters. The administration also announced new sanctions against Libya, but that was overshadowed by the sharp demand for Gadhafi's immediate ouster.
"The president stated that 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," the White House said.
The statement summarizing Obama's telephone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel came as Libya's embattled regime passed out guns to civilian supporters and sent armed patrols around its capital to quash dissent and stave off the rebellion that now controls large parts of the North African nation. Violence continued, a day after pro-Gadhafi militiamen and snipers fired on protesters trying to march in Tripoli and their leader told supporters to defend the nation.
Until Saturday, U.S. officials held back from fully and openly throwing all their support behind the protest movement, insisting that it was for the Libyan people to determine how they want to be led. The refrain echoed the public position maintained by the administration during the Egypt crisis, when the U.S. gradually dropped its support for longtime ally Hosni Mubarak but never explicitly demanded his resignation after nearly three decades in power.
Explaining the change, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Libyans "have made themselves clear" that they want Gadhafi out.
"Gadhafi has lost the confidence of his people and he should go without further bloodshed and violence," she said in a statement.
The tougher tone sets the stage for Clinton's trip Sunday to Geneva, where she will confer with foreign policy chiefs from Russia, the European Union and other global powers on how to drive home the message to a Libyan government determined to cling to power and crush opposition to Gadhafi's rule.
Obama and Merkel strategized on how the world should respond to the violence that, according to some officials, has killed thousands of people. Clinton spoke with the EU's top diplomat Catherine Ashton to coordinate the international pressure.
Acting on its own, the administration announced a new measure Saturday when Clinton said the U.S. was revoking visas for senior Libyan officials and their immediate family members. New travel applications from these individuals will be rejected, she said.
The visa ban followed the administration's moves Friday to freeze all Libyan assets in the U.S. that belong to Gadhafi, his government and four of his children. The U.S. also closed its embassy in Libya and suspended the limited defense trade between the countries.
On the multilateral level, the administration joined in the U.N. Security Council's unanimous decision to extend the asset freeze globally on Gadhafi, his four sons and one daughter, and to establish a travel ban on the whole family along with 10 other close associates. The council also backed an arms embargo and referred the bloody attacks on protesters to a war crimes tribunal for investigation into possible crimes against humanity.
But it is still unclear how far the U.S. — and its international allies — might have to go to convince Gadhafi that his four-decade reign in Libya must end. American military action is unlikely, although the administration hasn't ruled out participation in an internationally administered protective no-fly zone.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon was due in Washington on Monday for talks with Obama at the White House.
The administration had faced pressure to step up its condemnation of Gadhafi and explicitly call for his ouster, as demanded by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday. The U.S. held back, but it started ratcheting up the pressure Friday after the Americans wishing to leave Libya were evacuated to safety by ferry and a chartered airplane.
Shortly after, Obama signed an executive order outlining financial penalties designed to pressure Gadhafi's government into halting the violence. The order said that the instability in Libya constituted an "unusual and extraordinary threat" to U.S. national security and foreign policy.
A nonviolent revolt against Gadhafi's government began Feb. 15 amid a wave of uprisings in the Arab world. Most of Libya's eastern half is under the control of rebels. Witnesses say Gadhafi's government has responded by shooting at protesters in numerous cities.
Meanwhile, Libya's top envoy to the U.S. claimed that Gadhafi's opponents were rallying behind efforts to establish an alternative government led by a former Libyan minister. He said the international community should back the movement.
The claim by Ambassador Ali Aujali couldn't be immediately verified and it was unclear what support the "caretaker government" led by ex-Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil commanded. But Aujali said the U.S. and other countries could accelerate Gadhafi's exit by supporting Abdel-Jalil.
"He is a very honest man, a man with dignity," Aujali told The Associated Press. "I hope this caretaker government will get the support of Libyans and of the international community."
The State Department said it had no knowledge of Abdel-Jalil's effort.