The previously unannounced visit came a day after the U.S. military sent the first two Predators to Libya but had to cut short their mission because of bad weather. McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was meeting with members of the Transitional National Council, the rebel government in Benghazi, to assess the situation. As he left a hotel in the city with a security detail, he said of the rebels, “They are my heroes,” the Associated Press reported.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded that the conflict in Libya is “certainly moving towards a stalemate,” even though he said airstrikes by U.S. and allied warplanes have reduced Gaddafi’s ground forces by “somewhere between 30 and 40 percent.”
Speaking to U.S. troops during a visit to the Iraqi capital, Mullen said the capabilities of those ground forces “will continue to go away over time,” Reuters news agency reported. Ultimately, he said, “Gaddafi’s gotta go,” and coalition actions “are going to continue to put the squeeze on him until he’s gone.” But he said it was unclear how long that would take. “Is he going to figure that out? I don’t know,” Mullen said.
Mullen also said the United States is watching for any al-Qaeda involvement in the Libyan opposition but has not detected anything significant. “In fact, I’ve seen no al-Qaeda representation there at all,” he said.
Responding to the U.S. decision to deploy Predators, Benghazi-based rebel spokesman Abdul Hafidh Ghoga told al-Jazeera television: “There’s no doubt that will help protect civilians, and we welcome that step from the American administration.” Other rebels made similar comments.
The deployment deepened U.S. involvement in the stalemated conflict and once again put U.S. assets into a strike role against loyalist ground forces.
The U.S. military will continue to maintain at least two Predators over Libya at all times, officials said Thursday.
At a news conference, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was adamant that the use of the drones was not a prelude to an even deeper U.S. commitment involving more strike aircraft or U.S. ground troops. “I think the president has been firm, for example, on boots on the ground,” he said. “There is no wiggle room in that. . . . This is a very limited capability.”`
Armed drones are in heavy demand in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, and the announcement of their deployment to Libya seemed designed at least in part to send a message to Gaddafi that the United States remains invested in the conflict.