By Craig Whitlock, Edward Cody and Liz Sly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 5:38 PM
The top U.S. intelligence official said Thursday that Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi is likely to "prevail" in his battle against rebels without foreign intervention or some other major change, as European governments and U.S. lawmakers sought ways to aid Gaddafi's increasingly beleaguered opponents.
The prediction by James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, came as the Gaddafi government claimed it has regained control of Zawiyah, an oil-refining center 27 miles west of Tripoli, and has driven rebels from the key oil port of Ras Lanuf in the east.
Clapper told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Gaddafi has consolidated his position in recent days and that his forces are far better equipped than the rebels, giving him a clear advantage.
"With respect to the rebels in Libya and whether or not they will succeed . . . I think, frankly, they're in for a tough row," Clapper said. "I do believe that Gaddafi is in this for the long haul. I don't think he has any intention . . . of leaving."
In response to questions, he added that "from a standpoint of attrition" and given the government's greater resources, "I think [over] the longer term that the regime will prevail."
President Obama's national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, later told reporters that the United States would soon send civilian disaster relief teams to eastern Libya to provide humanitarian aid.
"These are humanitarian assistance teams," Donilon said. "They are not going in any way, shape or form as military operations." The teams from the U.S. Agency for International Development will operate "with the cooperation of the authorities" in rebel-controlled areas, Donilon said.
In Tripoli, Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, vowed to about 2,000 frenzied supporters that the Libyan army would press ahead with its offensive and march on Benghazi, the rebel capital 630 miles to the east.
"Hear it now, I have only two words for our brothers and sisters in the east: we're coming," he roared at the crowd, pumping his fist. "Tonight Ajdabiya, tomorrow Benghazi," the crowd roared back. Ajdabiya is about 100 miles south of Benghazi, the rebel stronghold that is Libya's second-largest city.
Libya's deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, told reporters that the Libyan military had managed to "clean" Ras Lanuf completely and had recaptured weapons seized by the rebels.
He also said that Libyan forces recaptured Zawiyah and were now "cleaning" the town in preparation for a visit by journalists to verify the claim.
In the Armed Services Committee hearing, Army Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess Jr., director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, agreed with Clapper that Gaddafi was not at immediate risk of being toppled. "Right now he seems to have staying power, unless some other dynamic changes at this time," he said.
Burgess said momentum "has started to shift" from the rebels to Gaddafi's forces. "Whether or not it has fully moved to Gaddafi's side . . . is not clear at this time," he said. "But we have now reached a state of equilibrium where the initiative . . . may actually be on the regime side."
Clapper and Burgess testified after Libyan government forces drove hundreds of rebels from the key oil port of Ras Lanuf on Thursday, dealing a major setback to opposition hopes of advancing westward toward Tripoli. The loyalist forces rained bombs, rockets and tank shells on the town 412 miles east of Tripoli, hitting the main hospital and oil facilities and forcing lightly armed rebels to flee in cars and pickup trucks, the Associated Press reported. An opposition official said government forces also used gunboats to fire on rebels from the sea.
In an effort to bolster the rebels, France said Thursday that it now recognizes the opposition's governing council in Benghazi as Libya's legitimate representative, and it urged its European allies to do the same as a way to hasten Gaddafi's downfall.
Kaim, the Libyan deputy foreign minister, responded angrily to France's decision, calling it "a clear violation of Libyan sovereignty and independence."
Governments that talk about recognizing the rebel council are "leading the country to a civil war and to foreign intervention, and I'm sure no Libyan wants this," he said at a news briefing in Tripoli.
The French government made the announcement in Paris as European Union foreign ministers and NATO defense ministers gathered in separate huddles in Brussels to weigh proposals for military, diplomatic and humanitarian steps to push the embattled 68-year-old Libyan leader out of power in Tripoli. The NATO defense ministers decided Thursday to reposition allied warships closer to Libya to strengthen surveillance of the fighting there and better monitor a U.N. arms embargo against Gaddafi's forces.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would travel to Egypt and Tunisia next week to promote democratic reforms and meet with Libyan opposition figures. She also announced that the United States is suspending relations with the Libyan Embassy in Washington.
Libya's ambassadors to the United States and the United Nations - who have both defected to the opposition - announced, meanwhile, that they would hold a joint news conference Friday to call on the Obama administration and Congress to recognize the rebels' Transitional National Council as Libya's sole legitimate government.
Some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), have been pressing the Obama administration to intervene more aggressively in Libya, either by imposing a no-fly zone or giving direct aid to the rebels. They said Clapper's assessment reinforces their fears that the United States is missing an opportunity to do more to drive Gaddafi from power.
"There's a real probability that the regime will prevail," Lieberman said. "And that's a very bad outcome."
McCain said the United States now faces the possibility that Gaddafi could recapture parts of Libya, "at least enough to wage a counterrevolution of murder and oppression for a long time to come." He said such a development "would establish a dangerous counterexample to the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia" and would show other rulers "that the best way to maintain power in the face of peaceful demands for justice is through swift and merciless violence."
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, asked Clapper and Burgess whether imposing a no-fly zone on Libya would constitute an act of war.
Clapper said he would have to consult with government lawyers before answering. Burgess replied that "my general understanding" is that enforcing a no-fly zone would be an act of war.
Replying to other questions about a no-fly zone, Clapper said Libyan air defenses are "quite substantial," ranking second to Egypt's in the Arab world. He said Libya has at least 31 major surface-to-air missile sites, a radar complex and large numbers of shoulder-launched air-defense missiles.
The Libyan air force, Clapper said, has 75 to 80 operational aircraft - about a third of them transports, a third helicopters and the rest fighters. The air force has not been very effective in the fighting so far, he said, likening it to "the gang that can't shoot straight."
More formidable are Gaddafi's ground forces, notably "two special brigades, the 32nd and the 9th, which are very, very loyal to Gaddafi and do his bidding," Clapper said. "They're the most robustly equipped with Russian equipment, to include air defense, artillery, tanks, mechanized equipment, and they appear to be much more disciplined about how they treat and repair that equipment."
The 32nd Brigade is a special forces unit commanded by Gaddafi's youngest son, Khamis Gaddafi. It reportedly has been engaged in the bloody siege of Zawiyah.
By repositioning allied warships in the waters off Libya - a move announced in Brussels by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen - the U.S.-led alliance appeared to be trying to heighten international pressure on Gaddafi to yield power to the rebellion. Over the last three weeks, the uprising has gained a foothold in the eastern part of the country but faces repeated counterattacks against rebel-held western towns closer to the capital.
"Our message today is that NATO is united, NATO is vigilant, and NATO is ready," Rasmussen said.
He declined to describe the ships involved or their number, calling them only "naval assets" that could be used for humanitarian relief deliveries or reconnaissance. A U.S. official said the ships, from several nations, were already in the Mediterranean on a NATO exercise but were ordered closer to Libya's shores. A U.S. amphibious assault ship, the USS Kearsarge, and accompanying vessels have been in the area for several days.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made it clear that the NATO ships would not be authorized to enforce the embargo - or take any other military action - without a new resolution from the U.N. Security Council. The limitations added to an impression that members of the U.S.-led alliance, at least for the moment, seek to threaten Gaddafi with gestures while holding back from concrete action without legal backing from the United Nations and endorsement from Middle Eastern governments in the Arab League.
NATO planners, Gates added, will continue to look into the possibility of what would be necessary to impose a no-fly zone on Gaddafi's air force. But he indicated that no more specific preparations were underway.
"That's the extent of it as far as a no-fly zone is concerned," he told reporters.
In another gesture seeking to pressure Gaddafi, France recognized the main Libyan rebel group as the legitimate representative of the country Thursday and urged its European allies to do the same.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy met at the Elysee Palace with two representatives of the rebels' Benghazi-based governing council, identified as Mahmoud Jibril and Ali Essawi. The meeting was depicted as a gesture of support for the rebellion. On Thursday, government forces appeared to tighten their siege of rebel-held Misurata, while skirmishes continued in the contested city of Zawiyah.
France will soon send an ambassador to Benghazi to establish regular contact with the rebel organization, officials said, and Essawi said the council planned to send a representative to Europe.
French officials told reporters, however, that the recognition did not signify diplomatic recognition of the council as a government. Rather, they explained, it was designed as an act of encouragement.
"We would like all the European Union to follow suit," one official told Reuters. "But it's not in the bag."
Sarkozy's government, which was slow off the mark in recognizing the scope of the recent revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, has been eager to get out front in supporting Libya's rebellion. Its determination to act boldly comes despite past efforts to cultivate good relations with Gaddafi and an unsuccessful attempt to persuade him to use some of his oil billions to buy France's Rafale multipurpose fighter.
The Obama administration has emphasized that, whatever action is contemplated, it must have a legal basis, probably a U.N. Security Council resolution; it must be approved by regional nations; and it must be seen to be a necessary response to the situation in Libya.
Obama's advisers say the U.S. president is content to let other nations publicly lead the search for solutions to the conflict.
The 28 E.U. heads of state and government are scheduled to meet in Brussels on Friday to decide on a common course on Libya. Reports from Paris said some French officials are pushing for a no-fly zone or bombing raids on Gaddafi's military installations, provided that such moves are authorized by the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League. But other European capitals have expressed caution, saying Libya's rebel movement is little known and military strikes would be a serious step fraught with danger.
Jibril and Essawi had asked for E.U. recognition during conversations Thursday in Strasburg with members of the European Parliament. Parliament members endorsed the idea, but the E.U. foreign affairs head, Catherine Ashton, declined to take the step pending the summit meeting Friday.
A senior U.S. official said the NATO defense ministers were examining a wide range of options prepared by military planners. Although much discussion has centered on a no-fly zone, he said, the planning also includes smaller-scale responses, such as military protection for delivery of humanitarian relief and jamming of Libya's military communications.
NATO-nation Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft have been flying intelligence-gathering patrols off Libya for a number of days, he said.
Consultations on a possible Security Council resolution have been underway for a week at U.N. headquarters in New York. But Russia and China - along with other nations - have made it clear they are not eager to support military action.
The Arab League is scheduled to meet in Cairo on Saturday. A senior Libyan official traveled to the Egyptian capital Wednesday on what appeared to be a mission to invoke pan-Arab solidarity to prevent the group from endorsing military action against Gaddafi.
The mercurial Libyan leader has enemies as well as friends among the Arab leaders, however, having clashed with many of them over the years at various summit conferences and often calling them traitors to the Palestinian and Arab causes.
Cody reported from Brussels. Sly reported from Tripoli. Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.