By Karen DeYoung and Edward Cody
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 11, 2011; A01
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.
Libyan "bombing attacks that the world could see and understand, and it could be verified, on civilian and populated areas . . . would massively strengthen the case for the introduction of a no-fly zone," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC.
"Of course, it may involve many other nations, if it happens, other than NATO," he said. But "the demand is mounting in the Arab world. That is very important, it's absolutely crucial, in bringing a no-fly zone into being."
Donilon said that any military action would require "not just rhetorical support" from the region. A European official said that no one expected Arab nations to send aircraft to patrol Libya but that it would help if some Arab governments would provide token support by, for example, sending senior military officials to participate in a command-and -control facility.
The case made by U.S. lawmakers who favor more immediate aggressive action appeared to be bolstered by testimony from James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Gaddafi was likely to "prevail" over the rebels without foreign intervention or some other major change.
"I think, frankly, they're in for a tough row," Clapper said of the opposition in response to a question from Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.). "I do believe that Gaddafi is in this for the long haul. I don't think he has any intention . . . of leaving."
Donilon, when asked whether Clapper's assessment diverged from that of the White House, said the intelligence chief had offered a "static" assessment of the weaponry and forces arrayed on both sides, without taking into account the "dynamic" of Gaddafi's international isolation and other pressures being brought to bear against him.
"I'm one of those who believes that absent international authorization, the United States acting alone would be stepping into a situation whose consequences are unforeseeable," Clinton said in testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee. "And I know that's the way our military feels."
"It's easy for people to say do this, do that, and then they turn and say, okay, U.S., go do it. You use your assets. You use, you know, your men and women; you go out and do it and then you take the consequences if something bad happens," she said.
Clinton said she would meet with Libyan opposition figures when she travels next week to Tunisia and Egypt as the most senior administration figure to visit those countries since their entrenched governments were ousted earlier this year by largely peaceful protests.
"We are attempting and working overtime to figure out who are the people that are now claiming to be the opposition," she said, "because we know that there are some with whom we want to be allied and others with whom we would not."
The State Department declined to specify with whom Clinton would meet, but Donilon said they would be the same Libyan opposition figures currently traveling in Europe: council representatives Mahmoud Jibril and Ali al-Essawi.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with them Thursday at the Elysee Palace, a measure depicted as a gesture of support for the rebellion. French officials said they would soon send an ambassador to Benghazi, the center of the anti-Gaddafi movement, to establish regular contact with the rebel organization. Essawi said the council planned to send a representative to Europe.
Preceding a meeting of the 27 European Union heads of state Friday, Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron sent a letter calling on the bloc to "send the clear political signal that we consider the Council to be valid political interlocutors, and an important voice for the Libyan people in this phase."
Cody reported from Brussels. Staff writers Craig Whitlock and William Branigin contributed to this report.