Published: Mar 09, 2011 7:22 PM EST
Updated: Mar 09, 2011 4:22 PM EST

BRUSSELS- European governments are expected to adopt more sanctions against Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi in coming days but shy away from military measures like a no-fly zone without U.N. backing - as ongoing fighting, Arab public opinion, and a checkered history of intervention give them reason for caution.

European Union foreign ministers Thursday pave the way for a summit of government leaders a day later that will toughen earlier measures against Gadhafi and his closest associates with fresh financial sanctions, and arrange more humanitarian aid to help the evacuation of people fleeing the fighting.

Robust action like imposing a no-fly zone over the country to keep Gadhafi's warplanes from attacking rebels is unlikely.

"Everything that goes beyond targeted sanctions must be mandated by the United Nations and must, above all, have the backing of the Arab League," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Wednesday.

He and others in the EU stressed it is important to avoid providing fuel to Gadhafi's propaganda claims that the rebellion isn't a popular movement and is Western-inspired instead.

Before adopting any bolder steps, the Europeans were also looking to a meeting of the Arab League on Saturday to gauge the strength of regional support for a no-fly zone to contain the fighting in Libya, said a senior EU official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

France and Britain have been pushing for a no-fly zone at the United Nations but most of the other 25 EU nations have taken a cautious approach which will limit room for maneuver at Friday's emergency summit.

"You are talking about military intervention to get rid of one government and putting another one in place," said the official. "You have to think twice before doing anything of that sort. This would put us in a very delicate situation with many Arab populations. This is what it is all about."

Many EU nations will also take part in Thursday's meeting of NATO defense ministers across town in Brussels, where the no-fly zone will also be discussed.

There, too, allied nations were agreed that for NATO to act there would have to be a demonstrable need for such a mission, regional support in the Arab world and Africa, and a clear legal basis for it, said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to standing rules.

"We would welcome a UN Security Council resolution, we would want one," he said. At the moment, veto-holding Security Council members China and Russia oppose such a move.

With Iraq and Afghanistan in mind, many are fearful any military action could spell the beginning of a long engagement.

"We must also take care that we do not slide onto a slope at the end of which we could find ourselves in a lasting military conflict, at the end of which we could effectively be a party in a civil war," Westerwelle said.

Italy insists a strong international mandate will be necessary for a no-fly zone, or any military operation in Libya. Rome has offered its bases to be used for any enforcement of a possible no-fly zone, but Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has ruled out any Italian military intervention in the country because of Italy's past as Libya's colonial ruler.

Frattini insisted that imposing a no-fly zone would require broad international consensus and could not be left to a "coalition of the willing." He said a no-fly zone is "not a videogame."

The U.S. official noted, though, that there had been a noticeable decline in Libyan air attacks on insurgents in recent days. And he said there had been no evidence of any large-scale and indiscriminate bombardment of civilian populations.

Over the past days, EU member states have been preparing measures to turn the financial screw on Gadhafi and a full deal to target more international assets and companies linked to the regime could be completed on Friday. After a tentative agreement in Brussels the proposals are currently in the national capitals awaiting further approval.

"We have to prevent the ruling family in Libya being able to get fresh money ... so that the dictator cannot recruit any new mercenaries," Westerwelle said.

Two high-level officials from an opposition group fighting Gadhafi are expected to have diplomatic meetings in Brussels as the ministers and leaders are gathering.

The European Parliament's major political groups want the EU nations to recognize the umbrella group for eastern rebels, the newly created Interim Governing Council in Benghazi. EU officials said, however, that was unlikely to happen at this early stage. --- AP writers Slobodan Lekic from Brussels and Geir Moulson from Berlin contributed to this article.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)