BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 23 (UPI) -- In the wake of U.S. airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi's residences in recent days, there's growing speculation the Americans and their allies are out to get rid of the quicksilver Libyan dictator and effect regime change in Tripoli.
What's happening now, masked by the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over Libya, has the look of a settling of old scores against the man Ronald Reagan branded "the Mad Dog of the Middle East" and tried to kill in airstrikes in April 1986.
U.S. President Barack Obama has declared that Gadhafi has to go but has stopped short of saying he's a target for assassination.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says that killing Gadhafi isn't part of the U.S.-led Operation Odyssey Dawn authorized last Friday by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 to support Libyan rebel forces fighting Gadhafi amid the turmoil sweeping the Arab world.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, an early and enthusiastic advocate of the no-fly zone to aid the rebels, and others have made no secret of their desire to remove the "Great Leader" from power.
Cameron's foreign secretary, William Hague, was evasive during a heated BBC interview Monday about whether Gadhafi would or could be assassinated.
"I'm not going to speculate on the targets," he said, adding ominously, "that depends on the circumstances at the time."
However, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox insisted Gadhafi was "a legitimate target," underlining how the objectives of the military intervention remain nebulous and obscure outside the corridors of power in Washington, Paris and London.
George Friedman, founder and chief executive officer of the global security consultancy Stratfor, observed: "The long-term goal, unspoken but well understood, is regime change -- displacing … the government of Gadhafi and replacing it with a new regime built around the rebels …
"The test will come if a war designed to stop human suffering begins to inflict human suffering. That is when the difficult political decisions have to be made and when we will find out whether the strategy, the mission and the political will fully match up."
In the opening stages of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991, Saddam Hussein was targeted at least twice by U.S. airstrikes in a bid to decapitate his regime. Neither attack succeeded but, if they had been, countless lives lost in the subsequent war may have been saved.
Gadhafi has made many enemies since, as a 27-year-old army captain, he toppled the Senussi monarchy in Libya and established an erratic and often murderous regime, bankrolled by Libya's oil wealth, which became anathema, not just to the West, but to his fellow Arabs as well.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Gadhafi was reviled by the Americans and Europeans for sponsoring international terrorism.
Britain's Secret Intelligence Service tried to assassinate him June 1, 1996, because of his funding and arming of the Irish Republican Army.
On April 15, 1986, Reagan sent 37 warplanes to bomb Tripoli and Benghazi after radio intercepts indicated Gadhafi's intelligence services were behind the bombing of the La Belle disco in Berlin 10 days earlier in which two American servicemen were killed.
Gadhafi's residence was a particular target in that British-assisted operation and the objective was clearly to kill him if possible. He wasn't there but his adopted daughter was killed, along with 30 other people.
Gadhafi's revenge was to buy three Western hostages being held in Lebanon -- two Britons and an American -- and have them executed in the hills overlooking Beirut.
But more was to come. On Dec. 21, 1988, a bomb in the cargo hold of a Pan Am Boeing 747 blew apart Flight 103 over Scotland on a London-New York flight. All 259 people aboard the jetliner, mostly Americans, were killed, along with 11 people on the ground hit by falling wreckage.
Libyan agent Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted by a special Scottish court in the Netherlands in 2000 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was freed in 2009 because he had terminal cancer, although he is still alive.
On Sept. 19, 1989, the Libyans blew up another jetliner, a French UTA DC-10, over the northwest African state of Niger, killing all 170 people aboard. Gadhafi's intelligence chief, Col. Abdullah al-Senussi, and five other Libyans were sentenced in absentia to life terms by a French court in 1999.