“Another alternative would be clearly our preferred option, which would be that they — these opposition forces and the tribes — come together and begin to create something that resembles a more democratic state that protects the rights of its people,” he said.
At a separate hearing last week, Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, acknowledged the possibility of a deadlock in which Gaddafi would continue to control part of the country.
“I do see a situation where that could be the case,” he said. “I could see accomplishing the military mission, which has been assigned to me, and the current leader would remain the current leader.”
U.S. officials and independent analysts say that Gaddafi has been badly weakened by defections, airstrikes and a freeze on his foreign-held assets, and that he has few allies outside of Latin America.
Anthony Cordesman, a defense and security analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Gaddafi’s internal support would likely “erode from the margins,” as tribal leaders and military commanders peel off despite his ability to pay them. But the prospects are nearly as grim for his opponents, a rebel force with “no discipline, no communications and no intelligence, and at best an improvised logistics and supply chain.”
“You can’t fix those things quickly or easily,” he said.
With their proposal for a cease-fire, Libyan rebels appeared to acknowledge their inability to prevail militarily. A spokesman for the opposition offered to halt fighting if Gaddafi would withdraw his troops from Libyan cities and allow people to speak freely.
“We are seeking immediate withdrawal of Gaddafi forces around and inside cities to give Libyan people the freedom to choose,” said Mustafa Abdel Jalil, president of the opposition’s provisional council.
“Our main aim is to remove the siege from the cities,” he said at a news conference with a United Nations envoy.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim dismissed the offer. “If this is not mad, then I don’t know what is. We will not leave our cities,” Ibrahim said.
Talk of a cease-fire comes at the end of a week in which rebel forces briefly regained two oil ports and then were repelled back to Ajdabiya, 99 miles from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
In Tripoli, meanwhile, heavy gunfire erupted before dawn Friday as tensions rose in the capital following rumors that other government officials were preparing to join Foreign Minister Musa Kusa in defecting from Gaddafi’s government.
Sustained bursts of automatic fire were heard coming from the direction of Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound about 2 a.m. and again shortly before dawn. Ambulances and police cars were seen speeding through the deserted streets, but there was no immediate explanation for the unusual overnight activity.
Witnesses told Reuters that they had seen “pools of blood” outside the compound that had been cleaned away by morning. One said sharpshooters had been positioned on high buildings around the capital, perhaps to preempt any possible demonstrations after Friday prayers, which had served as a rallying point for opposition protests before they were stamped out. Journalists who attempted to leave their hotel unaccompanied by government minders were turned back by armed men.
Kusa was the most senior Gaddafi minister to abandon the regime, and his defection in London on Wednesday prompted appeals by U.S. and British officials for other top figures to follow him into exile. But there were no new reports Friday of defections.
A senior aide to Gaddafi’s powerful son Saif al-Islam has been in London recently talking to government officials, a British official said Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The official said Mohammed Ismail “has family in the U.K., I believe his children are in school here, and while he was visiting family we took the opportunity to talk to him. We gave him strong messages about the Gaddafi regime and told him it was time for Gaddafi to go, and encouraged those around Gaddafi to leave.”
British media reports have speculated that Ismail was exploring exit strategies with British officials for one or more members of the Gaddafi family.
A spokesman at the British Foreign Office declined to comment on Ismail’s visit but said talks with Kusa are “ongoing.”
Sly reported from Tripoli. Special correspondent Karla Adam in London and staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.