U.S. to send aid team to eastern Libya; Clinton to meet rebel representatives

Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 11, 2011

The White House announced Thursday that it will send a government aid team into rebel-held parts of Libya and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she will meet next week with representatives of the transition council, moves that edged the Obama administration closer to the formal Libyan opposition.

But the administration stopped far short of recognizing the council as Libya's legitimate government and continued to wrestle with how to achieve its goals of pushing Moammar Gaddafi from power while ensuring that something better far replaces him.

The White House rejected criticism from some lawmakers that its response has been too slow to fast-moving events on the ground. On Thursday, Gaddafi loyalists routed opposition fighters from Ras Lanuf, a strategic oil port the rebels had held for a week, and said they had retaken the town of Zawiyah, 27 miles west of Tripoli.

Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam triumphantly proclaimed to a crowd in the capital that forces loyal to his father would continue to reverse the rebels' gains. "Hear it now. I have only two words for our brothers and sisters in the east: We're coming," he said.

Thomas E. Donilon, President Obama's national security adviser, told reporters in a briefing that the United States and its partners had "taken a range of steps . . . to squeeze Gaddafi, isolate him, really turn him into a pariah."

"So I think it really is important in any analysis or writing that's done on this that those steps not be underestimated," Donilon said, adding that "half of the population of Libya is no longer under regime control." Although U.S. relief teams have been working along Libya's border in Tunisia and Egypt, he said, "we're prepared to send diplomats to Benghazi to engage the opposition inside Libya."

"This will be helpful to our understanding of the situation on the ground," Donilon said, and will "allow us to facilitate humanitarian assistance."

At the same time, he said, "a range of options are on the table at NATO."

NATO defense ministers, meeting in Brussels, authorized the repositioning of allied warships closer to Libya to strengthen surveillance of the fighting there and to better monitor a U.N. arms embargo against Gaddafi's forces. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made it clear, however, that the NATO ships would not be authorized to take any military action without a new U.N. Security Council resolution.

Gates said NATO planners will continue to look into 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," Gates told reporters.

The limited NATO actions 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 more concrete measures until they can muster legal authority. The United States and its European allies think the case for military action would be strengthened at the United Nations if the Arab League agrees to back intervention when it meets Saturday to discuss Libya.

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