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U.S. struggles with little leverage to restrain Libyan government

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.

Human rights groups have urged the United States and other countries to more forcefully condemn the Libyan government's attacks, which have involved military helicopters and jets as well as soldiers opening fire on peaceful crowds, according to witnesses.

But Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, acknowledged that U.S. pressure has its limits.

"Frankly, I don't think the U.S. government has any real channels into the Libyan government," she said.

The muted U.S. response reflected, in part, the administration's difficulty in keeping pace with fast-moving events in Libya, where many reports of widening unrest were difficult to verify. The government has not allowed foreign journalists into the country, and has cut off Internet service.

Even in the best of times, tight government regulations limit U.S. diplomats' movement around Libya. On Monday, the State Department said that it had ordered all U.S. diplomats' family members and non-emergency personnel to leave Libya.

"Our embassy is focused on, at this point, security and the evacuation of Americans. There's a lot of information out there. We're not really in a position to corroborate it," said one State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

White House officials said that, in addition to privately urging Libyan officials to show restraint in dealing with the demonstrations, they are studying the Monday pre-dawn speech of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the leader's son. One official said the review is to "see what possibilities it contains for meaningful reform."

Saif Gaddafi has offered reformist proposals in the past. In the summer of 2008, he delivered a national address that U.S. diplomats said "implicitly criticized past decisions of his father's regime" and called for "dramatic changes" to Libya's political system, according a cable recently made available by WikiLeaks.

Few, if any, reforms followed, and the tone of his middle-of-the- night address amid the growing unrest over the weekend served as more of a warning than a pledge of reform.

"For him to be speaking in such a bellicose way about what's happening in the country, repeating tired old promises about reform, it's just appalling," Whitson said.

About 5,000 U.S. citizens live in Libya, many of them dual nationals.

Edward Djerejian, another former senior diplomat, said the Obama administration had no alternative but to work with allies to pressure Libya, because it didn't have the kind of close military relationship that proved helpful in curbing violence during the Egyptian demonstrations.

"This is a big gap, which makes it a bit more problematic," said Djerejian, director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Staff writer Colum Lynch in New York and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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